Kyle Larson wins Pennzoil 400 in dramatic fashion

Gary A. Vazquez-USA TODAY
Kyle Larson held off Tyler Reddick to preserve a dominant effort on Sunday, earning his first win of the 2024 campaign in the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

LAS VEGAS — It was a dominant afternoon for NASCAR’s best driver on Sunday. Kyle Larson took the #5 Chevrolet to victory lane, leading 181 laps and taking all three stages at the 1.5 mile track. It was Larson’s second consecutive win at Las Vegas after he took all three stages in last October’s South Point 400.

Even with the effort from Larson, Tyler Reddick still made a very real challenge for the lead in the final laps. Despite this, Larson still managed to shut down each of Reddick’s attempts at the lead on his way to leading 45 of the last 46 laps himself. Reddick had the best car of the day and came within a car length on the final lap but just couldn’t overcome Larson down the stretch.

“(When you) win both stages and win the race, you’d say we had a dominant day, but there were some cars that were pretty tough right there with us.” said Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels after the race. “I would argue we haven’t had the outright best car every time that we’ve won.”

Larson reflected on his battle with Reddick after the race, saying “I knew it was going to be cat and mouse. I knew I was going to have to kind of catch him off guard with a late kind of block.” He continued, “I thought I had a decent gap with eight-ish laps left, and I was like, I need to get going up top in 3 and 4 to try and build some momentum. That was the wrong move, and it really allowed him to get much closer to me. And then I was like, crap, alright, now I’ve got to air block him.

“With two to go, he expected me to run the middle or top or something, and I was able to do kind of a nice lazy arc to the bottom and take his air away in the center of 3 and 4 and got him tight. That killed his run down the front stretch, and thankfully that was the white flag. I knew as long as I hit my marks, I was going to be safe to the checkered.”

Larson’s gamesmanship frustrated Reddick, someone he has had a relationship with since they were kids on the Northern California racing circuit.

“He seemed pretty good in the middle, and I was obviously really good on the bottom. He just never let me have it,” Reddick said. “I kept trying to run higher and higher and he was kind of running right in the middle of the racetrack there. Every time I kind of got close, we’re running just wide open enough in Turn 1 and 2 that he could kind of defend pretty well. It’s frustrating.”

Larson’s teammate William Byron was also in the conversation for the best car of the day, but his race was thrown into despair when a garbage bag made its way on to the track and found the front of his car. The bag caused his car to overheat, reaching a water temperature of as high as 350 degrees which forced him to pit and sent him to 35th on the leaderboard. Still, Byron was able to make it back to a points position by finishing tenth, owing to the strength of his car on Sunday afternoon.

The first stage came to a halt on lap 28 after Chris Buescher lost a front wheel and went crashing into the wall, resulting in a caution and eventual red flag for track cleanup. Losing a wheel on the track is an infraction of NASCAR rules that results in the suspension of two crew members of NASCAR’s choice for the next race. Buescher was unable to continue his drive but was released from the infield care center in timely fashion. Christopher Bell and Corey Lajoie each suffered their own incidents in Stage 2 and Stage 3 respectively, derailing both of their afternoons en route to finishing 32nd and 33rd.

Sunday was Kyle Larson’s third career victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Larson is a master of many tracks, often proving to be the sports most versatile driver. And yet, it’s Las Vegas Motor Speedway that just might be his best track of all. In 16 races at the speedway he has collected 12 top-10 finishes.

In other words, he’s been in the top-10 in 75% of his career races at Las Vegas. Not bad for a guy who has been racing at the sport’s highest level for a decade.

“Its always been one of my favorite race tracks, and its definitely one of my favorite destinations,” Larson said about Las Vegas. “I wish we could come here more often.”

Joining Rajah Caruth who won the Truck Series race on Friday night, Larson became the second graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program to find victory lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. Larson, whose mother is Japanese American, graduated from the program in 2012 and is far and away the most successful driver the program has produced.

“I was super proud and happy for Rajah on Friday night. Not only because it’s Rajah and everything that he means to the sport, but (also) with on his truck. and then myself winning here today, it is pretty cool for sure,” Larson told the media after the race. “The D4D program was good for my career. It kind of gave me my introduction into stock car racing and I gained a lot of experience, not only on the racetrack but off of it as well.”

Larson also captured the lead in the point standings with the win and now holds an eight point lead over Ryan Blaney. Larson won the 2021 championship in the throes of the pandemic and hasn’t been able to get over the hump again before or since, but we might not be far off from seeing a Jimmie Johnson-esque run from him with Hendrick Motorsports in the coming years.

Larson was a little bit more reserved about his title chances.

“I think we have the potential within our team to do that. I think it will be much harder. When we won in 2021, we killed them at the end.,” he said. “The field is much tighter, so that’s going to make winning much tougher than back then. Again, I think our team is well capable of it. I feel like we’ve done a really good job of executing to start the year.”