Kyle Larson is frustrated. Kevin Harvick is too. William Byron doesn’t care. These last two wins are a byproduct of his offseason efforts for which are finally paying off.
Larson had the fastest car in every metric that NASCAR uses during Friday’s practice session. He backed that up with the two fastest laps in both rounds of qualifying on Saturday. He was looking untouchable.
He really was in Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 too. He led a race-high 201 of 317 laps. It’s just the fact that Kevin Harvick caught him and passed him for the top spot with 43 laps remaining and set sail for what could have been his 10th Phoenix victory.
Instead, it was Byron celebrating under the springtime Arizona sun on Sunday evening.
“We got lucky with the one caution,” Larson said. “Team made a great call to take two, get us out in the lead.”
See, the only reason why Byron was in this situation was due to a caution flying for Harrison Burton on Lap 301. It set up a pit call to which took Harvick out of the running.
Rodney Childers called for a four-tire stop for Harvick’s No. 4 Ford. 6 other drivers went with two, including the two (Larson, Byron) that dominated this event previously.
Larson got a great launch on the initial restart. However, a quick caution came out for a crash behind involving both rookie drivers and AJ Allmendinger. One more shot to hold the field off. Byron ran Larson tough and prevailed.
“Restarts are just tough,” Larson continued. “I felt like I ran William up pretty high. I was expecting him to lose some grip. But he did a really good job of holding it to my outside, clearing me down the back.
“Yeah, I’m pissed off. Great fight by the team, great car, way better than we were here last year.”
Harvick, could never make up enough ground to get the lead back and finished a disappointing fifth in the end.
“That one is not fun to swallow,” Harvick said. “We had a great car and didn’t need that caution at the end. We had a strong car and a chance to win. Just hate missing an opportunity when you have a car that strong.”
His No. 4 Ford extended his lead to over a 5-second advantage at one point. Then came that caution.
Byron was the biggest beneficiary of this all. Last week it happened in Las Vegas.
At the time, Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Larson, was leading the way and well on his route to his first win of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season. However, the caution not only bunched things up again, but it forced the leaders down pit road.
Martin Truex Jr. stayed out. Byron beat Larson off pit road and on fresher tires than Truex, easily got by him coming to the white flag and didn’t look back to shore up his first win of the 2023 campaign instead.
A week later, it happened again.
“William did a great restart, got the lead I think after lap one. We set sail and did well,” Byron’s crew chief Rudy Fugle said. “Two weeks in a row we get that caution. Pit crew did a good job of getting us out on the front row. William did an awesome job. Second chance at a restart, did an amazing job, we won the race.”
Fugle says that the 24 team specifically worked so hard this offseason at both Vegas and Phoenix success. With where they sit in the playoffs, you have to do well at each in order to win a title. Joey Logano won both Vegas (Round of 8 opener) and Phoenix (Championship 4) last year en route to his second career championship. Byron, just did the spring two-step at each.
“Yeah, just a little bit of everything,” Fugle said on why the 24 team is clicking so well already. “Specifically 24 team is focused in the simulation program all off-season. We worked really hard, especially on Las Vegas and Phoenix ’cause they’re super important in the Playoffs.
“We had fresh information. Run Vegas with four to go, Phoenix obviously the last race of the year, you race them early in the year. Makes sense to work on those. Most of our focus to start with. Hope to take notes from these two races to propel ourselves to the first third, half of the year.”
Jeff Gordon says that this whole 24 team is deserving of this success.
“First let me say how proud I am of this guy, this team,” said the four-time series champion. “Nobody works harder. All these guys work hard.
“Over the off-season I came in one day, was it right after Christmas. I came to the office, this guy (Rudy Fugle) was there all by himself. I’m so proud of this guy and the efforts they’re putting in, see the results.”
Now, can the 24 team continue this early season success the rest of the way forward?
“Yeah, I think you got to get the wins while you’re hot. You got to capitalize,” Fugle says. “Super good. Our focus is nothing different now. Hit the reset button and how do we do it again.
“Put the hard work in every single day, keep grinding. That’s our focus.”
Byron may have lucked into his last wins, but it’s not like he wasn’t a deserving winner in each race either. Byron led a race-high 176 of 271 laps in Las Vegas including sweeping both stages to score his first win of the season. This week in Phoenix, he led 64 of 317 laps and won the first stage while being second in Stage 2.
Yes, the last two races were only won by late race cautions. However, someone had to win and Byron capitalized. He’s finding ways to win.
Now, can he keep this up?
The 25-year-old hasn’t won in bunches before. This is the first time of his Cup career that he’s won back-to-back races. His first victory came in the 2020 Coke Zero Sugar 400. He had just a pair of top five finishes in the 10 races after. 4 of those 10 races he finished outside the top 20.
His next win came in the third race of the 2021 season at Homestead. He’d not win the rest of the year. In fact, Byron had just 11 more top five finishes in the remaining 33 races.
Last season, Byron won the 5th race of the season in Atlanta. He’d back that up with another win three races later in Martinsville. It was starting to look like Byron was going to be the guy that we all expected him to be. However, that was his final win of the 2022 season.
He had one top five finish the rest of the way. In fact, he went the next 18 races with just one top 10 result in total.
Now, he’s back to victory lane in the third and fourth races of the 2023 season. Last year, he won the 5th race at Atlanta, which just so happens to be the site of next weekend’s race again. Can he use this for more consistency moving forward or is he peaking too soon?
“Yeah, I mean, I think last year, even though we won early, we didn’t really know the car or understand the car,” Byron said. “We were kind of just adapting to what we had. We were just making the most of an unpredictable situation with the entire field. There was a lot of attrition in the races, a lot of just weird things that were happening.
“I feel like now it’s strength on strength. It feels different. It feels like we’re more consistently towards the front and we’re leading laps.
“We just want to focus on our processes during the week. I think our processes this week were kind of frustrating because we didn’t really get to do the things we wanted to do. Everyone was a little tired. We did that Charlotte test. There was a lot going on on the outside. It was a little frustrating going into today, but it’s cool to see that we can overcome those things and still get a win.”
Also, you have to consider that Byron is still so young at this. He’s only 25 years old and didn’t honestly start racing inside of a race car until 10 years ago. So, while some may say that he should be doing this in his sixth season at Hendrick, others have to realize that he’s only been doing this a decade in total. He just came though the ranks that quickly. It takes time to fully grasp it.
“Yeah, I think people around me have always kind of helped me understand that I’m young,” Byron noted. “Max and my dad, just everyone, my dad especially, he’s a big stats guy. He’s like, Man, you’re young. Just give it some time.
“I’m very impatient, so I like things to happen quick. That’s how it happened for me coming up through.
“This level is so different. Took a lot of homework, a lot of details. I think the fact that I started later than most driving was a little bit — it took some time to bridge that gap at this level. Now that gap is bridged obviously.
“Yeah, I just feel like it’s a constant evolution, just trying to continue to get better.”
“I see a progression with William ever since he came to Hendrick,” he says. “Got to remember how young he was coming into the Cup Series, so much to learn. Young in racing in so many ways.
“When Rudy came to Hendrick, the instant connection and chemistry between these two was so obvious. It just took the whole team up to another notch. I think now they’re just building on that.
“It’s a lot of fun to watch and see.”
That’s why he put so much work this offseason too on his craft. He went back to how he first got into race – sim racing. He used the sim a lot this offseason and did so with Fugle’s fingerprints all over it in order for each to continue learning each other.
It paid off. Now, they’re 2-for-4 in 2023 and eyeing the 24 on top here in November too.