Who … should you be talking about after the race?
William Byron had the best car early, taking the lead on lap two and handily winning the first stage. He lost the lead to Kyle Larson at the start of stage two and finished second to his teammate in that segment.
Then, in the second half, Byron lost second to Kevin Harvick and fell out of the top five. He was set for a solid finish if not a spectacular one.
That was until Harrison Burton went for a spin. Burton’s spin and the resulting caution gave Byron a shot, and he exited the pits in second. Another caution then allowed him to pass Larson, where he held onto the lead in an overtime finish to take his second win in a row and second of 2023.
And don’t forget Tyler Reddick. Reddick’s start in 2023 has been a nightmare as bad luck — not bad racing — relegated him to finishes of 39th, 34th and 15th to open the season.
Reddick showed Sunday what he and his team are really made of. Starting 12th, Reddick began to pick his way forward almost immediately, finishing fifth in each of the first two stages before charging to third on the final restart. He leaves the West Coast 20th in points but with momentum on his side at last.
What … is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
Burton deserves a thank-you note from Byron because he’s certainly not getting any love from Harvick after spinning with 10 to go. The aftermath of the spin saw the complexion of the race change dramatically.
The finish might have been more exciting for fans because it came with an overtime restart after another caution on the restart from the Burton spin. But fans should be asking whether the caution was necessary at all. Burton spun all the way around and then drove away. He didn’t hit anything and sustained little, if any, damage. But the flag came out as soon as he got out of shape.
The same scenario played out a week ago in Las Vegas when Aric Almirola brushed the wall, bringing out a yellow flag despite no visible debris shed, and the subsequent restart changed the outcome dramatically.
The safety of drivers has to come first and if a caution is needed at any time in a race, it should fly, no question. But it’s not automatically necessitated every time a driver spins and drives off or even touches the wall. And if a caution isn’t needed for something early in a race, it shouldn’t be needed at the end, either, even if it sets up an exciting finish.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole winner Larson had the best car in practice, the best car in qualifying and probably the best car for at least most of the race. Larson led 201 of 317 laps on the day, including a stage two win, and a two-tire call on the final pit stop put him on the front row with Byron. Larson moved to block a charging Ryan Blaney on the restart and the move destroyed his momentum. The late-race chaos shuffled Larson to fourth after overtime.
All-time Phoenix win leader Harvick looked like he was in position to add to his total, leading with 10 to go when Burton’s spin turned the script on its head. Harvick started 15th and worked his way forwad for the entire first half before charging past Larson for the lead with just over 40 laps to go. Harvick tried to run away and hide until a four-tire call on the final stop left him fighting to get back to the front. He was able to beat his way to fifth at the checkers.
Defending champion and fall winner Joey Logano struggled hard early, falling off the lead lap in stage one. He got the circuit back at the end of the stage thanks to the free pass and held his own on the lead lap from there, but a repeat of last fall’s championship performance was not in the cards as Logano finished 11th with a lackluster performance.
When … was the moment of truth?
When the Cup Series held a test at Phoenix over the winter to try out a muffler package, among other things, the drivers there asked to run with a smaller spoiler and less downforce in an attempt to make the cars harder to drive and to open up more racing lines. NASCAR allowed it and by the end of the test, the spoiler was down to two inches. The drivers liked it and so did NASCAR, who rolled out the package this week. It will be run on flat 1-mile tracks, short tracks and road courses this season.
Did it make the racing an overnight classic? No. But it did make it better than the fall race at Phoenix. The Next Gen car has struggled on the flat tracks and this is the first big stab at a fix. Most drivers agreed it wasn’t going to solve all of the issues overnight, but it was a step in the right direction. Sunday’s race showed that it was. It gives NASCAR something to build on.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
NASCAR heads back to the East Coast for a showdown at Atlanta Motor Speedway. There will be plenty of action; the track now races like a smaller version of Daytona or Talladega with large packs of cars. That’s exciting to watch, but it’s also bound to lead to some crashes and attrition due to damage.
It’s become a race of survival as much as strategy, but it also opens the door for a surprise winner as it’s a bit of an equalizer. That could mean a new face in the playoffs come fall, something that’s always a benefit to the sport.
How … big of a roll is Hendrick Motorsports on?
The Hendrick train is certainly gathering steam. HMS scored one top 10 at Daytona International Speedway, two at Auto Club Speedway, three at Las Vegas Motor Speedway by way of a 1-2-3 sweep and four at Phoenix.
Byron and Larson have been dominant the last two weeks. Alex Bowman leaves Phoenix with the points lead with Byron and Larson also in the top five. Chase Elliott is out of the driver’s seat with a broken leg, but Josh Berry has filled in admirably. He struggled with a fuel pump issue in Las Vegas but finished 10th in just his second race in the Next Gen car at Phoenix.
It’s a good time to be a Hendrick driver.
Part of that likely comes from HMS’ work on the Garage 56 Le Mans entry, which is a Next Gen Cup car with only a few modifications for the endurance race, and that effort provides a lot of test time on road courses in preparation. One of the drivers is former HMS driver Jimmie Johnson, whose ability to provide excellent feedback on his racecars was a major part of his seven title runs. So even though Hendrick has to share information gained from the Le Mans car with NASCAR, they have a head start on the season.
But 2022 should serve as a cautionary tale; teams have struggled to gain momentum with this racecar. Richard Childress Racing opened the season on a high and fell back to Earth in Las Vegas.
And HMS is potentially staring down the barrel of a major penalty along with Kaulig Racing after NASCAR confiscated hood louvers from all four Hendrick cars along with Justin Haley’s No. 31 entry. Louvers are a single-source part, so if NASCAR determines they were altered, it would be a minimum 75-point hit for all four teams plus 10 playoff points from each one. That, as much as the other teams, could be a momentum killer.
HMS is riding a wave right now, but someone else may grab the next one.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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Harrison Burton was not ready to move up to the Cup Series. Kid is way over his head.
No Way ! A penalty for hendricknascar – is that like cutting off your nose to spite your face. No way a “gm” team gets penalized for banquet funds this early in the season.
One question, I read last week was just how solid Burton is in the 21 ride? If he’s on shaky ground, he didn’t do anything to help him self yesterday.
But my big question is, I thought the Hamlin & Chastain deal was settled. I’m not saying that Hamlin took Chastain, & himself out of good finishes on purpose. But he usually has much better car control. Just asking.
“Burton spun all the way around and then drove away. He didn’t hit anything and sustained little, if any, damage.”
Looked to me like the tire was shredding and tearing the fender off as he drove away.