By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
Sometimes, things just work themselves out.
After winning the first two stages of the South Point Casino 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the race had somehow gotten away from William Byron. Kyle Larson was driving away to a five second lead inside of the final laps.
It was another could have been victory getting away from the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team dating back to last summer. Byron thought about a previous pit road mishap, picked apart his restarts throughout the day and every moment that could have been on Sunday.
And then, absolution.
Aric Almirola lightly slapped the wall with three laps to go, enough for race control to call a caution, and then it became decision time. Fourth running Martin Truex Jr. was kept out on old tires by crew chief James Small. The rest of the top-10 came down pit road for right side tires.
But there is more to this story.
Larson came down ahead of pit road ahead of Byron, but just barely lost the lead on pit exit. The race off pit road was to determine who would line up to the outside of Truex after he selected the bottom for overtime.
Truex tried his best to hang on but was ultimately a sitting duck. Byron drove away to claim the trophy he won, lost and somehow won again.
A clean sweep.
“I don’t think I’ve really dominated a race,” Byron said. “I’ve led a lot of laps in a couple races, but to be this good in a race with our team is definitely a good sign. It’s a different feeling at this point of my career, having a team around me that can just execute that well on pit road, strategy that good or adjustments. It’s real team effort.”
Say what you will about the overall performance of the No. 24, Larson and his No. 5 was just as good as the No. 24 as they ran 1-2 in some order for much of the race, and it just came down to track position and clean air.
Larson lost that chance at clean air when it mattered most.
“There wasn’t nothing I could have done on that restart, no,” Larson said. “I just needed to be about five feet further up leaving pit road than where we were to beat William and we would have won. I’m proud of the effort, proud of the car. We executed pretty well all day. The 24’s pit stop was just better at the end.”
It was an extreme track position race, reminiscent of the 550 package era races with high grip cars and minimal tire falloff on an especially cold afternoon in the desert.
The dynamic was best described by No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle and echoed by Larson.
“Yeah, I think the cars are a little bit closer together,” Fugle said. “When the track is gripped up like this, too, it’s cool out there, so track temp was down. Track temp was under 70 today. Beginning part of the year you’ll have some of this that I think will fix itself as we start to warm up.”
To that point, Larson didn’t expect that last caution.
“It was pretty high grip today with the cool temperatures so I didn’t think we would have too many people spinning out today,” Larson added. “So, I wasn’t surprised that it had been that kind of race. William had a bad pit stop before. I thought he was the one to beat. I hadn’t spent any time behind Alex (Bowman) but I thought he would be really good too.
“William was able to restart behind us, we beat Alex to the lead and got around (Denny Hamlin, when he stayed out on old tires) and I felt like we could lead the rest of the way. Just didn’t work out.”
Byron and Fugle went into the race thinking they had the best car. In fact, Byron texted team owner Rick Hendrick on Saturday to express that sentiment. He’s never done that before, a testament to how confident he felt but also to show solidarity after a disheartening weekend where the organization learned Chase Elliott would miss multiple races with a broken leg suffered from a mid-week snowboarding trip.
“I don’t normally text him unless he texts me or unless we’re talking about other things outside of racing,” Byron said. “I just felt confident and just felt like we had a shot to win.”
And Fugle did too.
“Yeah, we knew we had a good car but … I don’t know that we’ve seen a dominant race car at a mile-and-a-half track since we’ve come out with this Gen-7 car,” Fugle said. “From green to checker, I don’t know if we’ve had somebody lead tons and tons of laps like we had with the old car yet.
“You never know what you’re going to go through. You think you’re going to have ebbs and flows and how the track changes and whatnot. If you lose track position for any reason, it seems really hard to get it all the way back.
“Happy to go through what we did and have a good car from start to finish.”
Byron won twice last year, and probably should have won spring Darlington and Gateway. They showed strength in the playoffs but didn’t make it to the Championship Race.
Winning the third race of the season was important to them, but they also intend to eliminate the slumps this season.
“It’s kind of a measuring stick of where we are,” Byron said. “Felt like going into this weekend that we were there, but we haven’t shown that result-wise. Needed to show that with a result to kind of get that satisfaction as a team.
“I think it’s just hopefully more of the same. We don’t want to have any slumps this year. We want to just dig all the way to the end of the year. It’s a grind, but we’re going to fight hard all year and try to keep this performance up.”