Denny Hamlin advances in Cup playoffs with Las Vegas victory

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The second round of this year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs began as the first round did – with Denny Hamlin in Victory Lane.

Hamlin won Sunday night’s Round of 12 playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, earning his second victory of the season. He earned his first in the Round of 16 opener earlier this month at Darlington Raceway.

MORE: Las Vegas Cup race results, driver points

With Sunday’s triumph, Hamlin is the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

“It feels so good to win in Vegas,” Hamlin told NBCSN after the race. “Last couple times, I’ve been so close – just didn’t have the right brakes. But they dialed the car in great and we were able to hold those guys off.”

He also avoids major stress over the next two weeks, while his fellow playoff drivers must deal with the unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 10) to close the Round of 12.

“I’m so happy – so happy – to not have to worry about the next two weeks,” Hamlin said. “But I’m a professional, so I’m gonna work just as hard each and every week to win.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott finished second, a little over four-tenths of a second back after he steadily tracked down Hamlin during the final laps.

“We were really close, just not quite close enough,” the reigning Cup Series champion told NBCSN after the race.

“Denny did a good job controlling the gap to me. He was having a hard time with the 21 (Matt DiBenedetto), but I think he was doing a good job of giving himself enough room to him to be able to work the lanes and control the gap back to me.”

Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. finished third and fourth, respectively, giving Joe Gibbs Racing three drivers in the top four. Ryan Blaney of Team Penske finished fifth.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Larson

STAGE 2 WINNER: Denny Hamlin

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ousted from the playoffs last week at Bristol, Tyler Reddick responded with a solid drive to sixth place. It’s his 14th top-10 finish of the season. … Kurt Busch also bounced back from playoff elimination at Bristol to finish eighth on Sunday for Chip Ganassi Racing.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Sunday just wasn’t meant to be William Byron‘s night. After having to start from the rear, Byron charged all the way to the lead at Lap 92. Then, following issues during a Lap 133 pit stop, Byron rallied back inside the top 10. But on Lap 225, he had to pit under green for a flat tire. That was one obstacle too many for Byron, who could only recover for 18th at the checkered flag.

POST-RACE PENALTIES: Kevin Harvick‘s ninth-place car was found with two lug nuts not safe and secure in post-race inspection. That infraction will earn his crew chief, Rodney Childers, a one-race suspension for next Sunday at Talladega and a $20,000 fine … Four additional cars were found with one lug nut not safe and secure: Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. Their respective crew chiefs are set to be fined $10,000 each for the infraction.

NOTABLE: Chase Briscoe finished 14th after plane issues this morning in Charlotte caused a delayed departure to Las Vegas. While his team left for Las Vegas on Saturday, Briscoe stayed an extra day in Charlotte as he and wife Marissa await the arrival of their first child.

NEXT: Sunday, Oct. 3 – Round of 12, Race No. 2 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC)