By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
There was a little déjà vu in how William Byron won the NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix on Sunday.
For the second week in a row, Byron and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson were the class of the field, with pit stops and restarts dictating who led a majority of laps. For the record, it was Larson this week with 201.
And yet, the one difference from last weekend at Las Vegas was the increasing likelihood that neither Hendrick driver would win the race with a Kevin Harvick upset manifesting itself over the final stage. In fact, Harvick was driving away to what looked like his 10th career victory in the desert when Harrison Burton crashed with 10 laps to go and triggered a pivotal pit road decision.
Rodney Childers ordered a four tire stop for Harvick, with six others behind them taking two tires and getting out ahead, led by Larson and Byron. Propelled by the number one pit stall, Larson surged ahead of Byron on the final restart of regulation but another crash behind them set up overtime.
Byron nailed this restart, stalled his teammate out to the point he was forced to deal with Ryan Blaney behind them, and drove to his sixth win and first in back-to-back fashion early in his sixth Cup Series season.
“I had a really good launch,” Byron said. “No wheel spin. At that point I was just focusing how can I get through the gears (and) how can I side draft Kyle. When they all pulled down to the apron, the outside guys at a bit of a disadvantage because of the distance. Tried to stay as close as I could there.
“Then it’s who can beat each other to the corner without hitting the wall. We both got in there deep, both were up the track. He held me really tight there through the middle of one and two, off of two. There was just enough grip up there. I think I was just far enough up on him I was able to stay in it.
“We were obviously dragged back. I got that big push from Tyler (Reddick) down the backstretch. That was huge. He drilled me, but we’re not going that fast. It was nice. That kind of got me out in some clean air.”
The déjà vu was especially apparent in that it took one final caution to give Byron a chance to rectify a mistake that cost him track position, and once given that opportunity to make something happen from the front row, he just isn’t missing right now.
Not that he felt that way going into the final restart.
“I was thinking, ‘man, it went so good last week, so I’m probably going to end up crashing’ this time,” Byron said with a laugh. “When you have that level of commitment, when it’s a green-white-checkered, it’s either going to go really good or not.
“I don’t enjoy winning races that way. It’s very stressful. There are a lot of restart tactics but it’s fun. It’s a good challenge for us because we’re all tired, into a long-run mentality and now it’s about a pit stop, reset and getting into the mindset for a good restart.”
That’s typically how championships are won in the Final Four era of the NASCAR Cup Series and this is where two of his three teammates have won championships over the past three seasons so maybe there is a bit of déjà vu there too.
For his part, Larson just had a bad launch on the restart and gave his teammate credit, again for the second week in a row.
“I spun my tires, but it ended up working out for me because (Blaney) hit me and had to hit me because he couldn’t pull out and pass me before the start-finish line,” Larson said. “I thought that’s what I needed to hold off William, but again, he did a really great job executing.”
For Larson, it was a tale of two losses, as he got beat by Byron on the restart and lost the lead to Harvick after green flag pit stops with 37 laps to go.
“We all came out in traffic and I wasn’t quite as good as he was in dirty air, so he hung with me,” Larson said. “I knew it was going to be pretty much impossible to hold him off. I wasn’t even able to put up much of a fight. I kind of screwed up and tried to get a run on a lapper on the high side, and he got by.
“But really, that was 40 laps to go or whatever, so I wasn’t going to hold him off anyway.”
As for Harvick, he had no problem with the decision from Childers to take four tires when the winning strategy turned out to be two. Causation is not correlation from his standpoint.
“It’s what I would have done,” Harvick said of his crew chief’s call. “I’d always rather be on offense. I just didn’t get a couple cars when that first caution came out. Kind of lost our chance.
“Still thought I had a chance there at the end. Those cars were quite a bit slower. They get all jammed up. That’s the way it goes. Just smoked ‘em up until the caution. … Just didn’t need the caution at the end.”
As it stands, it continues an early trend of Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports having a distinct edge this season, albeit one that may get negated a bit depending on what NASCAR decides to do with the louvers confiscated from all four of its cars over the weekend.
It’s something team vice chairman Jeff Gordon is expressing a degree of concern about.
“We had some conversation, will continue to have conversations, with NASCAR,” Gordon said. “Every situation is sort of unique, but this is a more unique one than I’ve seen in a while where there’s been a lot of communication back and forth on this particular part, especially for this racetrack because they did a parity test in the wind tunnel.
“I think it really opened up the door for some miscommunication. I don’t want to go any further than that. We’ll continue to just share all the facts and be transparent with NASCAR as we have been so far.”
Regardless, Gordon is getting a first hand look at his successor in the No. 24 grow over the past half-decade from being the kid, fourth best on the hierarchy, to someone beating Larson on consecutive weeks
“I see a progression with William ever since he came to Hendrick,” Gordon said. “Got to remember how young he was coming into the Cup Series, so much to learn. Young in racing in so many ways.
“When (crew chief) Rudy (Fugle) 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.”
William credits his dad, Bill, and longtime driver coach Max Papis for both their analytical approach and urging him to be patient with himself. It’s something that hasn’t come natural to him.
“I’m very impatient, so I like things to happen quick,” Byron said. “That’s how it happened for me coming up through.
“This level is so different. It’s taken 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.”
There is a little déjà vu from the most famous driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 too.
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