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NASCAR at Darlington 2021: Denny Hamlin Holds Off Kyle Larson to Win Playoff Opener

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist IVSeptember 6, 2021

AP Photo/John Amis

Denny Hamlin took a step toward a Cup Series championship Sunday with a victory in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Hamlin outpaced Kyle Larson and the rest of the field in the Cup Series playoff opener and clinched a spot in the Round of 12.

He won the first stage and then retook the lead in the third stage before holding off any late charges from arguably the best driver in the field this year. It was also Hamlin's third career Southern 500 victory.

NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC

'<a href="https://twitter.com/dennyhamlin?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@dennyhamlin</a> is a THREE-TIME <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Southern500?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Southern500</a> WINNER! 🏁<br><br>Hamlin WINS at <a href="https://twitter.com/TooToughToTame?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TooToughToTame</a> and clinches a spot in the next round of the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NASCARPlayoffs?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NASCARPlayoffs</a>. <a href="https://t.co/q3hgxfGzrO">pic.twitter.com/q3hgxfGzrO</a>

The biggest storyline heading to Darlington Raceway was the start of the 16-team, 10-race playoff.

The format is fairly simple, as the first round consists of three races and cuts the field from 16 to 12, the second round consists of three races and cuts the field from 12 to eight, and the third round consists of three races and cuts the field from eight to four. From there, the champion is the highest finisher of the four remaining in the final race.

Winning any of the three races per round automatically clinches a spot into the next round, so Hamlin won't have much to worry about until the Round of 12 begins.

Ryan Blaney started Sunday's race from the pole position, which figured to be a problem for the rest of the field. After all, he was coming off back-to-back wins at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 and FireKeepers Casino 400 and was on the short list of realistic contenders.

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So was Larson, who was dominant this season with victories at the Pennzoil 400, Coca-Cola 600, Toyota Save Mart 350, NASCAR All-Star Race, Ally 400 and Go Bowling at The Glen race.

Yet it was Hamlin who won the caution-filled first stage that was defined by trouble elsewhere from his own impressive driving.

Alex Bowman ran into plenty of trouble by hitting the wall, getting clipped by William Byron and then working through a small fire on pit road. Elsewhere, Michael McDowell's day ended early when he hit the inside wall, and Chase Elliott's car had front-end damage that knocked him further back in the field.

NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC

TROUBLE for Alex Bowman and William Byron!<br><br>Bowman hits the wall, and Byron clips him. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NASCARPlayoffs?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NASCARPlayoffs</a> x NBCSN <a href="https://t.co/5dz5iuFzS1">pic.twitter.com/5dz5iuFzS1</a>

NASCAR @NASCAR

A huge hit for <a href="https://twitter.com/Mc_Driver?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Mc_Driver</a> on the backstretch! <br><br>Caution is back out at <a href="https://twitter.com/TooToughToTame?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TooToughToTame</a>! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NASCARPlayoffs?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NASCARPlayoffs</a> <a href="https://t.co/GUVsHXKE2z">pic.twitter.com/GUVsHXKE2z</a>

The chaos continued in the second stage, as Kyle Busch's race came to an end after a crash with Austin Dillon. Busch also turned heads when he told reporters, "We were running like s--t. We got wrecked. It's what you get when you run like s--t."

Byron's disappointing day also ended with a crash in the second stage, but Larson avoided the trouble and won a second stage he largely controlled.

NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC

Kyle Busch is OUT!<br><br>Austin Dillon gets into the No. 18 car, and "Rowdy" goes to the garage for an early exit at <a href="https://twitter.com/TooToughToTame?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TooToughToTame</a>. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NASCARPlayoffs?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NASCARPlayoffs</a> <a href="https://t.co/j3hvPmPpfn">pic.twitter.com/j3hvPmPpfn</a>

NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC

William Byron's one of many drivers in the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NASCARPlayoffs?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NASCARPlayoffs</a> with issues tonight. <a href="https://t.co/WF1D4jWXTK">pic.twitter.com/WF1D4jWXTK</a>

Fittingly, the third stage was also an exercise in attrition, as Blaney spun out after he was penalized for an uncontrolled tire. Martin Truex Jr. also went to the back of the field after he was caught speeding on pit road, and Elliott's race came to an end when he hit the wall.

NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC

Chase Elliott hits the wall late at <a href="https://twitter.com/TooToughToTame?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TooToughToTame</a>!<br><br>Not the start to the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NASCARPlayoffs?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NASCARPlayoffs</a> for the defending champion. <a href="https://t.co/XgJ5UnRsnJ">pic.twitter.com/XgJ5UnRsnJ</a>

Even with all that, there was plenty of drama with Hamlin seizing the lead and attempting to hold off Larson and Ross Chastain on the final stretch.

He was able to do so and prevailed in an eventful playoff opener.

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