William Byron earned his second consecutive NASCAR Cup Series victory after capitalizing on a two-tire stop and holding off the field on an overtime restart at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, March 12. Ryan Blaney, Tyler Reddick, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick completed the top five right behind him.
It is Byron’s sixth career Cup Series win and the first time since Chevrolet in 2001 that a single manufacturer has won the first four races of the season.
But What Really Happened?
After two straight weeks of utter dominance, one has to start wondering if the HMS bowties have found something in the Next Gen that other teams have not.
For 265 of the 317 total laps, half of Hendrick Motorsports’ armada was unbeatable.
Now, let’s make it clear. In this case, the word ‘unbeatable’ doesn’t mean that they had decent cars and ran in the top five for most of the race. No. In this case, it meant that the HMS cars of Larson and Byron were entire straightaways ahead of third place.
Restart after restart, it was the same. Byron and Larson would put on a side-by-side show for a couple of laps at most before one of them prevailed and the other resigned to ride around in second. The duo dominated in the desert to lead a combined 265 laps.
To save you the math, that’s 84% of the race.
Now, compared to many racing beatdowns in the past, that doesn’t sound so bad. After all, just during last year’s Championship Finale race at Phoenix, Joey Logano and Team Penske teammate Blaney led a combined total of 296 laps out of 312.
However, unlike this case, the Penske drivers didn’t dominate the race a week prior as well.
At Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend, the same two culprits of Larson and Byron led 239 of 271 laps and finished 1-2. That’s also not mentioning their HMS teammate Alex Bowman, who finished third and even led a couple of laps himself.
But if HMS has found something, how long will its dominance last? How long will it take other teams to catch up? Will it be there when Elliott gets back in the car and has to win quickly to make the playoffs?
Who stood out?
But during the entire 500-kilometer race, there was still one driver that could contend with the dominance of the white and blue bowties of Byron and Larson.
And for a little bit at the end there, he was beating them.
Even in his retirement season, we have come to never count out Harvick at Phoenix.
Among all the talk and turmoil about Stewart-Haas Racing’s poor performance last year and this year, Harvick still shows everyone why he’s considered the best at the desert-based track.
It wasn’t until there was 44 laps to go that Harvick finally got around Larson after stalking him for as long as he did, and for about 30 of those laps, Larson could only watch helplessly as Harvick became a small green dot in his windshield.
For a minute, you could already hear the headlines being written. Harvick was about to win a staggering 10th career Cup race at Phoenix.
However, with 10 laps to go, the yellow waved for a spinning Harrison Burton.
Almost mirroring what happened at Las Vegas, crew chiefs plotted and codewords were uttered on radio frequencies. Harvick opted to take the safe four tires. Six others, including both Byron and Larson, took only two.
Even after another caution that caused an overtime restart, Harvick couldn’t run down the leader Byron in time. He settled for a fifth-place result.
Yet his legacy at Phoenix continues on. Sunday’s top five marked the 20th-consecutive top-10 finish for Happy at the 1-mile oval. The last time Harvick finished outside the top 10 there was spring 2013.
Race winner Byron was 15 years old and still racing Legends cars.
Who fell flat?
It’s pretty amazing the difference five months can make. For Logano, it’s probably a five-month difference he’d like back.
After leading 187 laps and demolishing the field en route to his second career Cup championship in November, Logano was easily one of the favorites being watched entering Sunday.
But shortly after he was lapped in the first stage, it was obvious that the Penske Ford’s magic wasn’t there.
Although his early-race contact with Martin Truex Jr. probably didn’t help.
Even so, Logano had an average running position of 17.6 throughout the 500-kilometer event and while he finished 11th after the late-race pit calls shuffled the field somewhat, the No. 22 spent only 30% of the race in the top 15 – an abysmal performance for a team that led the most laps and won the first stage only five months earlier.
You can’t blame the manufacturer either. Heck, you can’t even blame Team Penske.
As mentioned, Harvick – a fellow Ford driver – was on his way to win on Sunday before a last-minute caution. He still finished fifth.
Logano’s Penske teammate, Blaney, who led 109 laps in November, still finished second.
Of course, every driver has mysteriously bad races here and now. Just ask Kyle Busch during last year’s Martinsville fall race where the two-time champion went six laps down under green-flag conditions.
But after two straight weeks of underperformance from the reigning champ, one starts to ask questions.
Is it just two flukes in a row? Is it the dreaded championship hangover? Is it the crew chief? Is it the crew?
Is it the driver?
Better than last time?
It looks like that new low-downforce short-track package didn’t really work, huh?
There was hope for short-track racing fans going into this weekend’s event. NASCAR announced it had made changes to the short-track racing rules package for the Next Gen car in an attempt to remedy the dull racing the new vehicle had produced on the popular short circuits.
And after talk of cars sliding around, and drivers complaining about its handling difficulty during practice on Saturday – music to a racing fan’s ears – that hope of good short track racing was magnified.
Alas, it appears the new package has hardly done anything to the racing itself.
Well, at least so far.
With the exception of who was running at the front, Sunday’s race nearly mirrored what we saw in November.
Five months ago, there were 12 lead changes among six drivers. Sunday saw 10 changes for five drivers. Also similar was the amount of yellow flags. There were four non-stage cautions in 2022 and three on Sunday.
They’re minor differences and overall, the racing product wasn’t much different either. That’s also not great.
So, what is it then? Perhaps the new changes targeted the wrong aspects of why the Next Gen car is failing on the short tracks. Maybe the Next Gen car will need even more changes to make them exciting again.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s just Phoenix.
We will see at Richmond Raceway in three weeks.
Paint scheme of the race
Ever since NASCAR lifted the restriction of chrome numbers on its Cup Series cars last year, RFK Racing has been taking full advantage of it and we thank them for that.
On Sunday, RFK driver Chris Buescher raced in the diamond in the desert with a car adorned with an emerald green livery and some shiny numbers.
RFK has been on Thinkin’ Out Loud multiple times over the past year thanks to its fetching liveries, and as long as it keeps using the new chrome numbers and paint schemes with complimenting colors, it’ll keep appearing here too.
We’ll also keep comparing them to NFL teams.
The Cup Series heads back to the East Coast for some pack-racing action.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to the new Atlanta Motor Speedway for its second superspeedway race of the year in the Ambetter Health 400. Qualifying for the 260-lap event will be on Saturday, March 18 at 11:35 a.m. ET. The field will take the green on Sunday, March 19 at 3 p.m. ET. with coverage on FOX.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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