Monday, April 15, 2024

William Byron speeds to first road course win

The NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture further crystallised with Sunday’s road race at Watkins Glen International. In the quickest full-distance Cup race in NASCAR’s modern era, William Byron dominated the final two stages in just 1 hour, 58 minutes, and 44 seconds for his series-leading fifth win of 2023 and first on a road course.

After crushing the field at Indianapolis last Sunday, Michael McDowell looked on pace to repeat the feat at Watkins Glen when he won Stage #1. However, his race quickly unravelled after going through too many pit boxes on his ensuing stop followed by a crew member going over the wall too soon. An attempt to recover ended with an electrical problem knocking him out on lap 74.

Byron inherited the lead from McDowell and only briefly relinquished it when performing green-flag stops. Besides his first road course win, Byron also notched the fifth straight victory for Hendrick Motorsports at Watkins Glen.

“I think road courses this year have been really tough for us,” said Byron. “I think we started the year strong at COTA, had top two speed; (Tyler) Reddick was the car to beat, but we were a close second there. I felt like we could build on that for the rest of the year, and I got excited for the road courses, and then we just went through a slump there with Sonoma and Chicago where it was just really tough for us and we struggled.

“We started the turn the corner in Indy last week. We had a lot of speed coming from the back. Just had good grip in our car. Felt like I could push the car to make lap time, and I felt optimistic coming here that we could run well. But Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) kind of kept talking me down, he’s like, ‘We just need to get a solid top ten.’

“I think I really just felt optimistic that we could run well. As soon as we got out there in practice and the way the car felt through some of the corners that are really important here, I just felt really good about what we had. Just really proud of the team. It’s cool to get that first road course win. It’s taken a lot of effort.”

While team owner Rick Hendrick enjoyed his fifth Watkins Glen win in a row, the drivers who delivered the first four had days to forget. Kyle Larson, who won the 2021 and 2022 editions, finished a distant twenty-sixth after colliding with Austin Dillon and spinning on the final lap.

Chase Elliott, the 2018 and 2019 winner (2020’s race was cancelled due to COVID-19), entered Watkins Glen in a precarious position as he needed a win to guarantee a playoff spot and was too far back to make it on points. After qualifying a frustrating fifteenth, he ended up in a deeper points hole when he ran out of fuel on lap 57 while going through the Bus Stop, resulting in the race’s only caution. He consequently placed thirty-second.

Although Ty Gibbs finished ahead of Bubba Wallace in fifth to the latter’s twelfth, Wallace sitll has thirty-two points on Gibbs for the sixteenth and final playoff slot entering the regular season finale at Daytona. Daytona is one of Wallace’s stronger circuits, having finished second there twice and typically running up front, though its superspeedway nature makes any predictions difficult.

With the top-thirty rule dropped, all full-time drivers without a win can still make the playoffs if they win at Daytona while Wallace could do so on points with a strong finish. Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski clinched their playoff tickets at The Glen via points standing.

“Thanks to Byron for winning that. Didn’t have a new winner,” Wallace commented. “I’m proud of myself. That’s the first time I felt proud of myself at a road course race. I just executed and didn’t lose focus, maybe one time. That’s the difference maker. You’ve got to stay on it at these places.

“Just hats off to my team for sticking with me and believing in me on these road courses. I know we still have one more to go, but we wanted to maintain our gap and not lose too many and we gained. Hats off to everybody on the effort we put in. Just a great day for the #23 team.

“Now, we get to go in Daytona stressful as hell, but it takes a little bit of the edge off for sure.”

Race results

Finish Start Number Driver Team Manufacturer Laps Status
1 2 24 William Byron Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 90 Running
2 1 11 Denny Hamlin Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 90 Running
3 7 20 Christopher Bell Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 90 Running
4 6 16 A.J. Allmendinger Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 90 Running
5 4 54 Ty Gibbs Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 90 Running
6 19 19 Martin Truex Jr. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota 90 Running
7 13 17 Chris Buescher RFK Racing Ford 90 Running
8 8 45 Tyler Reddick 23XI Racing Toyota 90 Running
9 23 12 Ryan Blaney Team Penske Ford 90 Running
10 11 22 Joey Logano Team Penske Ford 90 Running
11 25 38 Todd Gilliland Front Row Motorsports Ford 90 Running
12 12 23 Bubba Wallace 23XI Racing Toyota 90 Running
13 28 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet 90 Running
14 9 8 Kyle Busch Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 90 Running
15 24 6 Brad Keselowski RFK Racing Ford 90 Running
16 17 2 Austin Cindric Team Penske Ford 90 Running
17 30 41 Ryan Preece Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 90 Running
18 22 1 Ross Chastain Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet 90 Running
19 21 42 Mike Rockenfeller Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet 90 Running
20 10 7 Corey LaJoie Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 90 Running
21 33 4 Kevin Harvick Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 90 Running
22 14 99 Daniel Suárez Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet 90 Running
23 18 48 Alex Bowman Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 90 Running
24 20 31 Justin Haley Kaulig Racing Chevrolet 90 Running
25 29 15 Andy Lally Rick Ware Racing Ford 90 Running
26 5 5 Kyle Larson Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 90 Running
27 35 78 Josh Bilicki* Live Fast Motorsports Chevrolet 90 Running
28 34 51 Cole Custer* Rick Ware Racing Ford 90 Running
29 31 43 Erik Jones Legacy Motor Club Chevrolet 90 Running
30 27 10 Aric Almirola Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 90 Running
31 16 3 Austin Dillon Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet 90 Running
32 15 9 Chase Elliott Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet 89 Running
33 32 21 Harrison Burton Wood Brothers Racing Ford 89 Running
34 36 77 Ty Dillon Spire Motorsports Chevrolet 89 Running
35 26 14 Chase Briscoe Stewart-Haas Racing Ford 83 Running
36 3 34 Michael McDowell Front Row Motorsports Ford 74 Electrical
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for points
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