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Hamlin wins Southern 500 to open NASCAR Cup playoffs

Denny Hamlin won for the first time this season after entering the week seeded seventh in the 16-driver postseason.
Credit: AP
Denny Hamlin celebrates in victory lane after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Darlington, S.C. (AP Photo/John Amis)

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Denny Hamlin held off Kyle Larson after their cars hit nose to tail racing to the finish line Sunday night in the Southern 500 to open the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Hamlin won for the first time this season after entering the week seeded seventh in the 16-driver postseason field and vowing if he kept running strongly up front, he’d reach Victory Lane before the year ended.

“It’s as good a time as any right?” Hamlin said in victory lane. “My favorite race of the year.”

He looked like a comfortable winner before the top-seeded Larson charged up on his back bumper on the final turn, smoke pouring out of Larson’s car. But Hamlin held firm up near the wall to take the checkered flag

“He was going to have to go through me,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin came out second to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. during a caution with 45 laps to go, and moved in front when Truex was penalized for going too fast in the pits.

Hamlin broke out ahead of Larson on the restart 36 laps from the end.

The win was Hamlin’s fourth at Darlington Raceway and moved him into the round of 12 in the knockout format in a grueling race where several playoff contenders struggled at the track “Too Tough To Tame.”

The past two series champions, Kyle Busch in 2019 and Chase Elliott last year, were in the garage before the race ended. Busch slammed the wall — to the delight of large crowd back at Darlington — and drove straight to his hauler.

Elliott was caught in a three-wide sandwich where he was next to the wall. He came away with tire and brake problems.

Larson was second for the third straight time racing at Darlington. He led the most laps, 156 out of 367.

He made it crazy at the end.

“I didn’t want to wreck him. I just wanted to get to his outside,” Larson said. “He did a great job, not really making any mistakes on that last run.”

Ross Chastain finished third, the only non-playoff driver among the top eight.

Chastain ran among the playoff cars most of the night. He was asked what he needed to breakthrough here. “A better driver,” he chuckled. “I can go fast, I just can’t quite race with them.”

Chastain will drive the No. 1 car for Trackhouse Racing in 2022.

Truex was fourth, followed by Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Chris Buescher and Austin Dillon.