Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After William Byron Makes the Most of His Teammate’s Tangle

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Darlington raceway never makes it easy on a would-be winner. It’s not called the Track Too Tough to Tame for nothing. Just when it seemed as though Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain would duke it out for the win in the 2023 Goodyear 400, the Lady in Black chose another dance partner. As Chastain and Larson clashed and then crashed in overtime, William Byron found the Lady’s favor, avoiding their sliding cars to win his third race of 2023 for owner Rick Hendrick, who hadn’t won at Darlington since 2012.

Byron led twice for only seven laps, but he raced a smart, careful race. That turned out to be the ticket to victory lane. And a really big hat.

And don’t forget Justin Haley. Just in case you aren’t convinced that racing the racetrack is crucial to Darlington success, Haley shows how racing your own race without overdriving and at the same time keeping an eye out for trouble pays big dividends. Starting 22nd, Haley made his way to an eighth-place finish, beating several faster cars with perseverance.

What… is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

With his third win of the season, Byron has to be the title favorite, right? The wins give him playoff points and momentum, but he also has a couple of DNFs that have knocked some wind from his sails. But at the halfway point, nobody really stands out as a real favorite. Larson and Kyle Busch have two wins apiece, but like Byron, haven’t found the consistency that makes people point and say, ‘that guy looks like a champion.’

Chastain leads the points without a win and without much more consistency than anyone else. Christopher Bell has been the most consistent, but he has also had some bad luck.

This isn’t a bad thing, though. The unpredictability of 2022 made it one of the more memorable seasons in recent history. More of the same in ’23? Yes, please.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: Is Hendrick Motorsports on Another Run?

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Martin Truex Jr. handily won stage one, leading all but one lap. He scored a 10th-place finish in the second stage after spinning out on the final lap, but he found himself in eighth for the start of the final segment. Truex worked his way to fourth, but a restart on lap 281 saw many of the leaders caught in a multi-car incident, and Truex was the first car collected. The damage was severe enough to send Truex to the garage with a 31st-place result.

Defending race winner Joey Logano started 15th and didn’t make noise in the first half of the race. The No. 22 team used sound pit strategy to work their way forward. Logano was making his presence known among the leaders as the laps ticked down thanks to that strategy, but unfortunately the front was right in the eye of the hurricane as Logano got caught in the same crash as Truex. He limped home in 18th.

Active Darlington win leader Denny Hamlin never found his groove on Sunday. He did lead once for nine laps, but it was under a green-flag pit cycle after a pit gamble, and Hamlin was never really a factor. He didn’t take home any stage points but did one thing several of his competitors could not: avoid the multi-car incidents. Hamlin finished 12th, salvaging a decent if unspectacular day. 

When… was the moment of truth?

Whatever else changes in NASCAR, Darlington Raceway remains a challenge for drivers. Those who forget, even for a moment, to race the racetrack suffer the consequences from the Lady in Black. Sunday’s race featured a pair of multicar crashes. The first took place on lap 194 when Erik Jones’ loose wheel caused him to spin in traffic, collecting eight other cars. The second incident came on a restart with just a handful of laps remaining. Larson was racing Chastain for the race lead when the pair touched, setting off a chain reaction behind them that involved a total of eight cars. 

A repeat performance on the final restart in overtime handed the win over to Byron.

It doesn’t take much — a slip up on a pit cycle, a momentary turn of attention to another driver — for the track to reach out and grab someone and ruin their day. It’s not about beating the other drivers at Darlington. It’s about taming the Lady.

See also
Rick Hendrick Sounds Off on Ross Chastain: 'If You Wreck Us, You're Going To Get It Back'

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

There’s a moment of truth on the horizon. A generation of fans has never seen cars race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, and not long ago it seemed as though they never would. The .625-mile oval had been left to decay, the racing surface overgrown with weeds and outbuildings sagging.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. recognized the importance of preserving something of the historic track (built in 1947, it predates NASCAR by a year) and lobbied to have it scanned for use in iRacing, but also as a way to keep the configuration recorded on the off chance that someone might someday want to build a similar track. Earnhardt brought a group of volunteers to North Wilkesboro to clear the weeds, and the scan happened. 

When the pandemic forced NASCAR to race virtually for part of 2020, the track was on the schedule, and drivers and fans alike reveled in the experience. Still, anything else seemed out of reach. 

But in the unlikeliest of stories in recent NASCAR memory, the track is back, for real this time, for the All-Star race. It’s a perfect venue: close to home and challenging because none of the current drivers have much, if any, experience there. 

The test will be whether fans support it. Fans were excited when Rockingham Speedway made a brief comeback, but not excited enough to buy tickets. The All-Star event is almost — but not quite — sold out. And that might be almost — but not quite — enough for North Wilkesboro’s comeback to last. 

How… important is the throwback theme to the sport?

It’s important. Sports in general are indebted to their histories, and NASCAR is no different. When NASCAR’s 50th anniversary rolled around in 1998, the sport was booming and many of its pioneers were not only still alive, but still involved at some capacity. Of course, 25 years later, that number has dwindled, though some of the sport’s recent crop of drivers have taken on ownership or leadership roles which will keep them involved for years to come.

For the sport’s history to resonate with current fans, it needs to be available to them. Whether that’s through the old-school paint schemes, hearing some of the sport’s greats in the broadcast booth or by drivers staying involved after they retire from driving, it keeps fans connected to the sport and to other fans. 

What NASCAR was is important for what it can and will be in the future. And it’s up to everyone from NASCAR to the tracks, the drivers and the fans to preserve it.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-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 working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is 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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6 Comments
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janice

it was great seeing the older drivers during pre-race. some haven’t changed, while some have.

i was trying to figure out why chris myers was dressed in that attire.

i was pleasantly surprised how bill elliott make the last portion of the race more enjoyable.

and why oh why do we still have grid walk? the look on piper harvick’s face was priceless.

Carl D.

After a long-winded spiel by Bowyer in the third stage, Bill Elliott replied “Yeah, right”. Loved it!

Echo

lol me too.

Echo

Justin= attrition

Mike

Hope you federal taxpayers get your 18 million dollars worth of covid 19 money to be able to run north wilkesboro one more time. Doubt dale jr put any of his millions in the project he is still waiting on someone other than him to fund his cup team.

kb

Nice spin spouting Truex’s innocence. LOL. What a pile. Truex screwed many a driver the last laps, including one who was poised to make a move. Crickets on the whole cause, where if it was certain other drivers…Oh lort…let the hate begin. We were shocked at the lack of “critique” the booth had because of who it was! Shameful. Fair is fair, when you call someone out. You call them all out, or shut up!

Last edited 11 months ago by kb
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