Byron scores COTA pole on Saturday, details with my thoughts with my top 5 takeaways

Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron won his first pole position of the season Saturday and will start out front for Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Circuit of The Americas road course.

The 25-year-old North Carolinian, Byron, earned the top starting spot for the NASCAR Cup Series race with a lap of 93.882 mph in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – bettering the field by a slight .138-second on the 20-turn 3.41-mile road course in Texas hill country. For his efforts, Byron becomes the first driver in NASCAR history to win pole positions at four different road course venues – Charlotte ROVAL (2019), Road America (2021), Indianapolis Road Course (2021) and COTA (2022). This is his ninth career pole position.

23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick will start his No. 45 Toyota alongside Byron on the front row, missing out on the pole in the final round of qualifying. However, he set a new qualifying lap record at COTA with a speed of 94.210 mph in the opening round.

“It’s good, it’s been an up and down weekend.” said Byron, who is also competing in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race, but ironically had his potential Xfinity Series pole-winning time disallowed during Friday Xfinity Series qualifying for exceeding track limits.

“In the Cup car we had a little bit of work to do yesterday just on overall balance and we corrected some areas and some areas for me as a driver.”

“Good to get the pole but really tomorrow is what matters.”

Austin Cindric will start third in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford alongside IMSA star Jordan Taylor, who qualified the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet fourth fastest in his NASCAR debut, subbing for the injured Hendrick driver Chase Elliott.

Elliott immediately responded to Taylor’s effort on social media saying, “I see you @jordan10taylor. .. killer lap,” – congratulating the 31-year-old sports car star.

“It was honestly a full new experience and yesterday [in practice] I felt like I was out of control 90 percent of the time,” said Taylor, who has two wins and a runner-up in four sports car starts at COTA. “Today, I felt like I knew what the car was doing. We made good set-up changes to help with that and give me a better sense of where the grip was. … Today felt super smooth and it felt like I was driving my [sports] car, something super familiar for me.

“The Hendrick guys have done an amazing job,” Taylor added.

Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez, Hendrick Motorsport’s Alex Bowman, Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger – winner of last year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at COTA – also advanced to final qualifying round and will start fifth, sixth and seventh

Legacy Motor Club driver Erik Jones, who was quickest in Group A during first round qualifying will start eighth – ahead of Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch and his Legacy Motor Club teammate, rookie contender Noah Gragson.

Defending race winner Ross Chastain – who on Friday commemorated his winning “watermelon toss” from last year’s first career victory celebration at COTA – will start 12th. NASCAR Cup Series championship leader Joey Logano will start 15th.

Former Formula One drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button contributed solid efforts in qualifying too. Raikkonen, who has one other NASCAR Cup Series start (at Watkins Glen, N.Y. last year) will start 22nd in the No. 91 Project91 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet. Button will roll off 24th in his NASCAR debut driving the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and new team owner Jimmie Johnson – making only his second start of the year in the No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet – will start 31st and popular IndyCar driver Conor Daly will roll off 35th in the 39-car field.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 25: Jordan Taylor, driver of the #9 UniFirst Chevrolet, drives during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 25, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Road Course Aces Showing Strength

So far this weekend, the road racing aces are shining. William Byron may not have a top five finish in 21 career road course starts, but he does have a pole on four different tracks. Second place starter Tyler Reddick won two road course races (Road America, Indianapolis) last year and was quickest in practice on Friday. Austin Cindric started his racing career as a road racer and backed up being seventh quickest in practice on Friday to qualifying his No. 2 Ford in third.

Jordan Taylor has won 24 times in IMSA competition and despite being a first-time NASCAR starter, he was fourth in Chase Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet.

Daniel Suarez led every lap in Stage 1 here last year and later won in Sonoma, was fifth in practice on Friday and also fifth in qualifying.

12 of AJ Allmendinger’s 17 career NASCAR victories have come on road courses, including last year’s Xfinity Series race. He’ll start seventh.

In the top five of Friday’s speed chart, 5 of the 6 road course race winners were represented, meaning that I can see another one of them winning on Sunday.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 24: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #84 Club Wyndham Chevrolet, and Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet, drive during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 24, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Chevrolet Still Holds An Advantage

Chevrolet has won 15 of the last 17 road course events including 5 of the 6 a year ago. They’re 2-for-2 in COTA. However, how much does this new lower downforce package affect their advantage?

Right now, it’s showing not much.

Chevrolet scored the pole and despite each manufacturer being represented in the top three of the starting lineup, 8 of the top 10 starters for Sunday’s race drive bowties.

Chevrolet also had 4 of the top 5 speeds in practice on Friday too.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – MARCH 25: William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, poses for photos after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on March 25, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Hendrick Motorsports Finding Their Form Again?

William Byron is on the pole. Jordan Taylor starts fourth. With Alex Bowman in 6th, that’s half of the top six starters for Sunday’s race belonging to Hendrick Motorsports.

Kyle Larson was second quickest in practice on Friday and will start 13th in his No. 5 Chevrolet. Can HMS get back to victory lane on a road course?

They went 1-2 here in 2021 and entering last season, had combined to have won 9 of the last 11 road course races in general.

Then came the new car last season.

They all said that this new car will greatly improve the road course racing because this car has an emphasis on left and right hand turns. It changes everything. So, did that change HMS’ dominance?

It absolutely did. They went 1-for-6 while Trackhouse won twice, RCR twice and JGR once.

Larson finished 29-15-3-35-1-35 on them last year. On those same tracks in 2021, he went 2-1-16-3-1-1.

Chase Elliott was 4-8-2-16-4-20 a year ago. The year prior, he was 1-2-1-4-2-12.

Elliott had won six of the last 11 road course races in general entering last season with the only four that he didn’t win being the February race in Daytona to where he led the most laps but was screwed for a caution being displayed for rain in which he was going to cruise to an easy victory. The other was a runner-up in Sonoma and Watkins Glen as well at Indianapolis to where he had a top two car that day before the last race chaos. Kyle Larson won 3 of the 7 road course races himself in 2021.

They went 1-2 in COTA, 1-2 in Sonoma, 1-2 in Watkins Glen and 3-4 in Indy for that 2021 season.

The Next Gen took away those advantages. Now, with a year of learning, plus a rules package update, do those changes help HMS get back to the front again?

Elliott isn’t here this weekend while Jordan Taylor fills in for him. Taylor was in the top 10 in practice on Friday and qualified fourth.

Larson struggled here last year but looks vastly better this time around. Bowman looked strong, but William Byron had no top 10’s at COTA and had no top fives on road courses a year ago in general.

The thing is, they’ve been dominant so far this season however too.

HMS went 1-2 in both stages in 2 of the last 3 weeks and taken home two wins as well. They’ve also combined to have led 506 of the last 839 laps (60%) run the last three weeks.

Reddick Carrying Toyota’s Banner

Reddick is one of the guys I’m watching this weekend. This is his first road course race with Toyota and we saw what he could do in a Chevrolet. Reddick won twice on road courses a year ago and was strong here last March. He also enters Sundays race (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN) surging on the heels of two straight top five finishes.

Reddick was quickest in practice on Friday, broke the track record on Saturday and will roll off on the front row (2nd place) on Sunday.

However, the Toyota’s last year were the worst road course outfit.

Martin Truex Jr finished 7th, 26th, 13th, 21st, 23rd and 17th in the 6 races on them a year ago. Denny Hamlin was 18th, 31st, 17th, 14th, 20th and 13th respectively himself. Kyle Busch was 28th, 30th, 29th, 11th, 32nd and third. Christopher Bell being 3rd, 27th, 18th, 12th, 8th and first was the bright spot. Bubba Wallace was 38th, 36th, 35th, 5th, 35th and 7th. The 45 ride which is now the 23 was 32nd, 18th, 23rd, 17th, 16th and 22nd between Kurt Busch and Ty Gibbs.

In saying this, how much will another change to the racing package bring them together or does Chevrolet make further gains?

Reddick is the one to break up the Chevrolet party.

Ford’s Not Looking Very Strong

Toyota’s struggled last year on road courses, but this time, it appears that it may be the Ford’s that are lacking. Austin Cindric (3rd) is the only Ford driver in the top 7 Rows on Sunday. In fact, they have just three of the top 18 starters…

NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying Final Round Results – EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix

Circuit of The Americas

Austin, Texas

Saturday, March 25, 2023

                1. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet, 93.882 mph.

                2. (45) Tyler Reddick, Toyota, 93.783 mph.

                3. (2) Austin Cindric, Ford, 93.459 mph.

                4. (9) Jordan Taylor, Chevrolet, 93.174 mph.

                5. (99) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 93.067 mph.

                6. (48) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 92.911 mph.

                7. (16) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 92.840 mph.

                8. (43) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 92.838 mph.

                9. (8) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 92.678 mph.

                10. (42) Noah Gragson #, Chevrolet, 92.188 mph.

                11. (23) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

                12. (1) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                13. (5) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                14. (20) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

                15. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                16. (21) Harrison Burton, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                17. (54) Ty Gibbs #, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

                18. (47) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                19. (14) Chase Briscoe, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                20. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                21. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

                22. (91) Kimi Raikkonen, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                23. (31) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                24. (15) Jenson Button, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                25. (19) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 0.000 mph.

                26. (41) Ryan Preece, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                27. (7) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                28. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                29. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                30. (6) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                31. (84) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                32. (17) Chris Buescher, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                33. (78) Josh Bilicki(i), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                34. (77) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                35. (50) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

                36. (38) Todd Gilliland, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                37. (51) Cody Ware, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                38. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 0.000 mph.

                39. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 0.000 mph.

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