By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
William Byron may have wound up 10th after what looked like a banner night was in store, but Thursday’s Super Start Batteries 400 at Kansas Speedway played a big role on the top-16 playoff grid.
Going into the 267-lap race, Byron was only a mere two points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the 16th and final playoff spot and was ahead of 18th place points man Tyler Reddick by 12 points.
However, things looked different on top of the No. 24 Axalta pit box as crew chief Chad Knaus was at the command center because of his wife Brooke expecting their second child this week. Thus, Keith Rodden was promoted as interim crew chief two days before the race.
Prior to the green flag, the radio communication shows how the No. 24 team are excited for the Knaus family and assured a great showing was in store:
“Chad, we miss you. We’re thinking about you and Brooke and Kipling. We’re super excited for the new bundle of joy you’re expecting, your baby girl. So we’ll do everything we can in our power to bring you home something special.”
For a period of time, it appeared the former crew chief of Kasey Kahne would have another surprise victory like three years ago at Indianapolis. That’s because a pit call to stay out helped the 22-year-old veteran gain valuable track position and wound up taking command of the 1.5-mile circuit for the first time on Lap 197.
Byron would have to deal with both Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski for many laps, but his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE would regain the top spot on multiple occasions. Most notably, on Lap 221 when he got by Keselowski after getting loose on the high line.
Byron would pull away from the field as the gap between he and Keselowski grew up to almost three seconds as a shot of becoming the second first-time Cup Series winner of 2020 was in sight.
“We started the race way off. We were really loose – just really struggling,” Byron on his race up until he took the lead. “The guys, Keith and everybody made a lot of great adjustments throughout the race. It really got us in a position where we could attack.
“As soon as we got probably 10 laps on our tires, the car felt pretty good. We just stayed out there on no tires, really ran there with the 2 (Brad Keselowski) and was able to pass him back for the lead. I thought we were looking really good.”
A game changing 10th caution for a right rear tire going down on Corey LaJoie led to one last trip to pit road with Byron changing two tires and exited out first in line. Behind Byron was his teammate Alex Bowman, who was looking for Kansas redemption after losing out last spring.
Byron would lose the lead to Bowman on on Lap 240 and from there, things began falling apart performance wise as the two-tire strategy didn’t pan out. While Denny Hamlin ultimately went on to score his second straight Kansas victory, Byron just held on for a 10th place finish.
“I think we just had too many laps on the left side and struggled there,” said Byron, who led 27 of 267 laps. “But overall, was really happy with probably 40 to go in the race. I thought we were in a really good position leading the race. We’ll take a top-10 with what we had there at the end and move forward to the next race. Looking forward to it.”
Due to Byron’s teammate Jimmie Johnson being involved on the Lap 177 multi-car crash, it put the seven-time Cup champion behind and repairs were made. Johnson ended up failing meeting minimum speed and had to fall out of the race, finishing 32nd.
As a result, Byron’s sixth top-10 finish moved him up to 16th in points, 10 markers ahead of Reddick while Johnson dropped to 18th in points, trailing Byron by 18 points with seven regular season races remaining.
“It was a solid finish for us – we needed that for sure for the playoffs,” said Byron.
The next stop for the Cup Series will be at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the running of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 August 2. In two previous starts at Loudon, Byron has finished 14th and 12th.