RICHMOND, VA — Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 was a Joe Gibbs Racing dominated race. They had all 4 cars in the top 10 at the end and in the second stage when they put two cars on one strategy and the other two on another, this appeared to be their race to lose.
They’d not give it away with Denny Hamlin crossing the finish line .552-seconds ahead of Kevin Harvick at the Richmond (VA) Raceway. It’s not surprising in the slightest in this being their 9th Richmond victory in the last 13 races there.
But, what was surprising was to see both William Byron and Kyle Larson in the top five at the checkered flag though. Byron, went off strategy and pit on Lap 247 and that move nearly put him in victory lane.
That would have been a remarkable feat for the young Charlotte native.
See, the strategy came full circle through the second stage. We had 6 cars stretch the stage on a one stop strategy. The rest did it on two. On Lap 233, everyone pit on the lead lap during the break. Now, everyone was on the same strategy and Byron was 13th.
That’s about where he should have been too. For a driver with no career top fives at Richmond and just one top 10, this was about right.
So, when a caution flew early in the final stage, why not pit? Why not try something different? It paid off too via the final caution flying 11 laps after that one. The rest of the cars that didn’t pit with Byron on Lap 247 would pit on Lap 258.
Byron, now had the lead. He’d not give it up until pitting on Lap 310. He’d get it back when Martin Truex Jr. pit on Lap 324.
That’s where his race changed though. They’d gamble and not pit again running the final 90 laps on one set of tires. It nearly worked but Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick all caught him.
He couldn’t hold Hamlin and Harvick off on Lap 395 but did Truex to finish third in his No. 24 Chevrolet for his 3rd top five in the last 5 races run this season.
“Thought we probably did the best job we could,” Bryon said. “It didn’t quite work out. I thought there at the end they told me I was just racing the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.). I’m like OK I got him, but then the 4 (Harvick) and the 11 (Hamlin) were on a totally different planet. That’s just part of it. There wasn’t anything I could do about them, so it was probably four or five to go and (spotter) Brandon (Lines) was coaching me on keeping the tires underneath it and having good exits and entries. Especially making those guys go around me on the top was definitely better. The times that guys would get underneath me was really, really hard to get back connected and get a good lap put together. The middle of the race we were terrible and we just couldn’t get in the corner at all and if you can’t get into the corner you can’t put consistent laps together. It’s nice to have a run like we had today.”
For Byron, is he now a championship contender? He has 3 top 5’s in his last 5 races to go along with leading 111 laps in his Atlanta win a few weeks ago and 122 more in his third place run on Sunday in Richmond.
For Larson, he came out of no where. He was 15th in Stage 1, 9th in Stage 2 and led no laps all day. The thing was, he pit on Lap 322 and was able to get himself in the top five in the end for jus his third career top five at Richmond and only his second in the last nine starts.
“I assume we netted out good with our strategy or better than we were,” Larson said. “I didn’t think those guys the 11 and the 4 were going to get to us, but then all of a sudden, our tires kind of fell off a cliff there and got really slick. We just kind of had to nurse it home. Glad we got a top five after three bad finishes in a row. We will move on to Martinsville and try to get a good run there.”
It was much needed for Larson though who was reeling entering this weekend. 4 of his 6 finishes were 29th or worse this season. Now, he has his 3rd top five and some momentum heading to Martinsville again.