LAS VEGAS — Denny Hamlin earned his first career victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday night, holding off Chase Elliott and kicking off the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with his second win in September.
Hamlin got his first victory of the season in the playoff opener at Darlington three weeks ago in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. A breakthrough victory in Vegas proves Hamlin has emerged as a serious contender for his first Cup Series championship after a 17-year career filled with near-misses.
Hamlin punched his ticket to the third round of the playoffs with authority at Las Vegas: The 41-year-old veteran had struggled on this track for most of his career, but he has put together three consecutive top-four finishes in Vegas, capped by this victory under the lights and fireworks.
“It feels so good to win in Vegas,” Hamlin said. “Last couple of times I’ve been close, but just didn’t have the right brakes. Great to hold those guys off.”
Elliott closed in on Hamlin in the final five laps as Hamlin’s performance appeared to decline, cutting the gap to a half-second with two laps to go — but the defending Cup Series champion couldn’t close the remaining gap, finishing second in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Kyle Busch finished third on his hometown track, followed by Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney as the 12 remaining playoff drivers began the second round and the final seven races of the season. Hamlin, Busch and Truex put Joe Gibbs Racing in three of the top four spots.
Points leader Kyle Larson finished 10th on the track where he won in March. Kevin Harvick, who scrapped with Elliott over tactics last week at Bristol, finished ninth.
Larson won the first stage, but Hamlin took the second when Larson needed gas and pitted with eight laps to go. Larson got stuck in the midfield in the final stage while struggling with his tires.
Hamlin has made the playoffs 15 times, but he came closest to a championship in 2010. He won eight races that year and took a points lead into the season finale at Homestead, only to end up second behind Jimmie Johnson with a 14th-place race finish.