For the second consecutive week, a late race caution helped William Byron reach the victory lane. Last week, Byron lucked out that a late race caution flew in Las Vegas. At the time, Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate of Kyle 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.
This time, it was Kevin Harvick’s race to lose. Harvick passed Larson for the top spot with 43 laps remaining in Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500. The lead grew to over a 5-second advantage in favor of Harvick. Then came another late race caution for Harrison Burton spinning on Lap 301. That negated Harvick’s advantage.
As the field came down pit road, Harvick was committed to a four-tire stop. However, six other drivers went with a two-tire stop including Larson, Byron, Ryan Blaney, Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Each would restart ahead of Harvick’s No. 4 Ford on the restart.
Larson got a great jump but it was a mangled mess behind which ended up with AJ Allmendinger spinning in Turn 2 and collected rookies Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs. As a result, we got overtime.
On the final restart, Larson had stiff competition by Byron.
Byron passed Larson on the high line in Turns 1-2 and led the final two laps en route to his 6th career win and second straight.
Blaney would finish second in his No. 12 Ford followed by Tyler Reddick, Larson and Harvick rounding out the top five.
Can Byron Sustain This?
William 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?
A Phoenix win bodes well in the sense that this is the Championship 4 race again. However, the driver to win the spring race in Phoenix has only went on to win the series championship just three times – Terry Labonte (1984), Dale Earnhardt (1990) and Jeff Gordon (1995). That may not bode well for Byron.
Larson Comes Up Short Again
Kyle Larson is getting closer and closer. If not for a late race caution last week and if not for making a mistake going high in Turns 1-2 this week, he, instead of William Byron, could very well be coming to Atlanta next week on the heels of two straight wins.
Larson led 63 laps in his runner-up effort in Las Vegas. On Sunday, he led a race-high 201 of 317 laps but came up short again. As frustrating as this may be, he has to look at the greater picture which is he’s a championship threat again.
On Sunday, Larson won the second stage and was leading until Kevin Harvick passed him with 43 to go. For some reason, Larson tried to run the high lane when his car was so much better running low. It allowed Harvick to catch up to him and pass him for the top spot.
He’d ride in second for most of the final laps until getting a lifeline with Harrison Burton’s spin on the front stretch with 11 laps to go. Everyone hit pit lane for the money stop. Harvick took four tires. Larson won the race off pit road in taking two.
6 total drivers elected for the two-tire stop with Larson leading the charge. It was now his race to lose again. Unfortunately for him, Byron was just a little bit better. Ryan Blaney passed Larson too as the California native fell to fourth in the end.
“We got lucky with the one caution,” Larson said. “Team made a great call to take two, get us out in the lead. Restarts are just tough. 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. Yeah, I mean, it’s a long season, but hopefully we’re in the Final Four when we come back here in November and can have a run similar to that with speed and try to execute a little bit better at the end.”
Still, Larson was in the lead group on the final lap of the season opening Daytona 500. He was again the last two weeks for having a shot at the win in 3 of the 4 races run this season. That’s all you can ask for.
While this weekend has to sting in being in a class to himself in practice on Friday (fastest single lap, fastest 10-lap average) and again on Saturday (quickest in both rounds), he can still hang his hat on having a fast race car.
This didn’t use to be one of his better tracks. Now it’s become one. Larson, has four Top-5 finishes in his last seven Phoenix starts including being seventh and first respectively in 2021 and 34th and 9th last year. However, that spring race finish a year ago isn’t indicative on how strong his car was because he was seventh and fifth in the first 2 stages. The thing is, while having eight Top-10 finishes in his last nine Phoenix tries too, Larson also has just one career win in 18 Phoenix starts in Cup as well. He is 0-for-1 in Trucks and 0-for-5 in the Xfinity Series.
Hendrick Motorsports The Clear Top Team So Far
The last two Sunday’s weren’t just about Byron. In fact, the entire Las Vegas and Phoenix race weekends were more about Hendrick Motorsports in general.
From the get-go last Friday evening with the announcement that Chase Elliott would miss time due to an injury suffered in Colorado to Josh Berry filling in for him to HMS going 1-2-3 at the close of the weekend, HMS made a lot of noise in Las Vegas.
They led all but 21 laps and went 1-2 in Stage 1, 1-2-3 in Stage 2 and 1-2-3 in the end. It was a flex of their muscle that while they had a slower than normal start to the season, that they’re going to be as good, if not better, than they have in the past few years.
Then this weekend in Phoenix. From the louvers being confiscated on Friday, to being 1-3 still in practice and 1-3 again in qualifying to leading 265 of 317 laps in the race while having all four cars finish in the top 10 in Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500, it’s a statement to the garage that they’re the top team right now.
HMS went 1-2 in both stages and have done so for the last two weeks now. They’ve also combined to have led 506 of the last 579 laps (87%) run the last two weeks and taking home both wins.
This championship runs through them.
Alex Bowman is the only driver in the sport with a top 10 in all four races run this season as he finished ninth on Sunday. Kyle Larson has two straight top four’s. William Byron has two straight wins. Josh Berry grabbed his first top 10 while Chase Elliott was runner-up in Fontana, a week before his injury.
“It’s been since 2016 I think since we’ve finished in the top 10 here, so happy for that,” said Bowman. “I have to figure out how to get better here. Obviously, I think our car is stronger than that when you look at our teammates. Fundamentally, I have something messed up. Just have to keep working on it, but proud of my No. 48 Ally Best Friends Chevy team. Good points day.”
Kevin Harvick Left Scratching His Head
Kevin Harvick came to Phoenix this weekend knowing that he had just two more shots to pick up his 10th Phoenix win. While he only qualified 15th, that’s not necessarily been a detriment to him here.
Harvick did finish sixth from a 16th place starting spot last year so it’s not like he can’t at least get inside the top 10. Also, his first Phoenix win came from the 15th starting spot. Can his last?
Harvick also won from the 19th (Fall 2012) start spot, 13th (Spring 2014), 18th (Spring 2016) and 10th (Spring 2018).
Unfortunately for him, a fluke late race caution kept him out of victory lane. If not for Harrison Burton spinning on the front stretch with 11 laps-to-go, Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 was Harvick’s to lose.
He passed Kyle Larson for the lead with 43 laps left and set sail on his 10th win in the Arizona desert. His No. 4 Ford extended his lead to over a 5-second advantage at one point. Then came that caution.
Rodney Childers called for a four-tire stop for Harvick’s No. 4 Ford. 6 other drivers went with two, including the two that dominated this event previously. 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.”
Still, he now has 3 top 10’s in 4 races run this year but just none of his results being better than 5th.
The proverbial “king of the desert” in Harvick has been astounding in Phoenix. Since 2012, Harvick has seven wins alone to go along with 11 top two finishes (23 tries). Furthermore, Harvick has finished worse than seventh in just three of those 23 starts too. He was 6th in the spring race last year but restarted third in the end. He just didn’t have the launch to contend for the win and got eaten alive. He came back to finish fifth last Fall.
He has to wait now until the season finale to attempt to become just the sixth driver to win 10 or more races at a single track with a win this weekend:
Drivers with 10 or More NASCAR Cup Series Wins at a Single Track
|Race Winners||No. of Tracks||Tracks With 10 or More Wins|
|Richard Petty||5||Martinsville (15), North Wilkesboro (15), Richmond (13), Rockingham (11) Daytona (10)|
|Darrell Waltrip||3||Bristol (12), Martinsville (11), North Wilkesboro (10)|
|Jimmie Johnson||1||Dover (11)|
|David Pearson||1||Darlington (10)|
|Dale Earnhardt||1||Talladega (10)|
In saying that, his only deterrent is, he hasn’t won with this new configuration.
Harvick hasn’t exactly been like the Harvick of old at Phoenix lately. While he does have seven wins to go along with nine top two finishes in his last 23 starts, to go along with finishing worse than sixth just three times since 2012, he’s not won since the track was reconfigured. He’s 0-for-9.
This change has been his kryptonite you could say. It’s kind of like we all saying if Kyle Larson could ever get to the Championship 4 when the final race was held at Homestead, then just give him the trophy in prerace. Well, we all thought that about Harvick when the final round was moved to Phoenix for 2020 and beyond. Harvick, was eliminated in the Round of 8 in 2 of the last 3 years and in the opening round this one.
9 of his last 10 Phoenix results have seen him finish fifth or worse. 10 of his previous 13 on the old configuration saw him finish fourth or better.
Racing Was Better, But Not By Much, Does This Bode Well For The Championship?
Everyone wondered how Sunday’s race at Phoenix was going to look. Last year’s short track and road course package was lacking. So, NASCAR adjusted.
The Road Course and Selected Short Track Package will now consist of the following:
- 2” Spoiler
- Remove Engine Panel Strakes
- Remove Center and Inner Diffuser Strakes. Only the Outer Diffuser Strakes will remain installed. Spacers will be installed between the diffuser flap and diffuser due to removing the inner diffuser strakes.
- Remove Diffuser Fences and Replace with Baseline Fences.
- Splitter stuffers will remain unchanged from the current components.
The series also added the 50-minute practice session on Friday to help these teams learn.
The package features slight modifications to the Next Gen car that significantly decrease the downforce created by the vehicles. This configuration will be utilized at all tracks where “wet weather equipment” will be required: Charlotte Roval, Chicago Street Course, Circuit of The Americas, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Martinsville, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix, Richmond, Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
Chief among the changes are a two-inch rear spoiler (a reduction from the current four-inch blade on the rear deck lid) in addition to several tweaks underneath the car. Those include the removal of three diffuser strakes, engine panel strakes and trimming the diffuser’s outer fencing. All changes were run together during the second day of a January test at Phoenix.
“That basically adds up to about a 30% downforce reduction,” Dr. Eric Jacuzzi told NASCAR.com. “We’re now in a downforce level we haven’t been at since pre-2000s for sure — like mid ’90s.”
The drivers said that Friday’s practice was a step in the right direction. Kevin Harvick noted that while the car still gets tight when running behind another car, there’s more off throttle time and the car slips and slides more which gives them room to make moves.
How much will this affect the racing?
“I don’t know if I’m biased towards it because I really like it, but I made passes in practice that I know that I absolutely wouldn’t have with the old package,” Christopher Bell said. “I don’t know. I’m happy. I hope the other drivers feel the same way…
“I felt like I could pass a little easier and I felt like I could maintain my position easier when I was following guys, but we will know more on Sunday.”
Unfortunately, while the slipping and sliding did occur, it didn’t do much to spice up the show. 10 lead changes among 6 drivers with only 5 cautions for 35 laps.
The only lead changes were really on pit sequences. Prior to Kevin Harvick passing Kyle Larson for the lead with 43 laps remaining, both Larson and William Byron had combined to lead 244 of the first 246 laps. The only time they didn’t lead was on the Stage 2 pit sequence when Larson pit on Lap 118. Ross Chastain stayed out and led Lap 119 before pitting. Brad Keselowski did the same one lap later (Lap 120). Larson reinherited the lead on Lap 121 and would lead until his next pit stop on Lap 246.
At that point, Erik Jones stayed out to lead 14 laps before pitting. Larson took over the lead again on Lap 261 and was passed by Harvick on Lap 269. Only reason the lead changed hands two more times was for that caution with 11 to go for which Harvick took four tires and Larson won the race off pit road while taking two then Byron passing Larson for the win in the end.
Last year, Bristol’s spring race had the least amount of lead changes in well over a decade. Richmond has largely been a bust last year. They had 13 and 16 lead changes. That the worst since the 2019 package which was dubbed a mistake and changes were made. Same for Martinsville. It was terrible back in the spring of a year ago. The 5 lead changes that night were the same as we saw for 2019 too. The pair of 2019 races (3 lead changes each) and this past spring (5) were the worst there since 1997. There were 18 and 15 respectively just one year ago. Last week we saw 6 cautions and 8 lead changes.
What about Phoenix?
There were 14 lead changes in the spring race a year ago and just 11 in the championship race. There were 22 and 18 respectively the year prior. The 14 lead changes in the spring were the least amount since….2019. The 11 was even lower.
This time, we only got 10 lead changes.
What concerns me is this is the championship deciding race in November. Does this mean we’re in for a snoozefest season finale?
This package also did tell me that the Ford’s advantage is long gone here. They led just 37 laps on Sunday afternoon, 36 of which by Harvick in the end. The other by Keselowski by running his stint one lap longer in Stage 2.
The Ford’s last year had the leg up on the competition a year ago in the two annual visits to the Arizona track. They led 89% (558-for-624 laps led) of the overall laps led, including 248 of the 312 in the spring race and 310 of the 312 in the Fall.
The thing is, last week in Las Vegas too, they were nowhere to be found up front. They had just two cars in the top 12 at the end (Austin Cindric 6th, Kevin Harvick 9th). Brad Keselowski (5 laps led) was their only lap leader.
Chevy led 280 of the 317 laps (88%) on Sunday while Toyota hasn’t led a lap here in each of the last three races now.