Byron had just scored his sixth win of 2023. His triumph was also the 300th NASCAR Cup Series victory for Hendrick Motorsports, extending the team’s all-time NASCAR record. Yet as he stood on the frontstretch at Texas soaking it all in, Byron admitted that the milestone win could have just as easily been Larson’s.
“Kyle really deserved this one, (I) got to say,” Byron said post-race. “Those guys were really fast all day, and (I) hate it for them at the end.”
Byron is correct. Larson was indeed fast all day. The No. 5 rolled off from 11th position and quickly advanced through the field. Larson rocketed into the lead on lap 143, passing Bubba Wallace. Wallace started on the pole and appeared to have the car to beat early in the race. But the No. 23 faded a bit as the afternoon went on, allowing Larson to win the second stage and pile up the laps led. As the race approached its end, no one was capable of catching Larson.
Meanwhile, Byron was nowhere to be found. The No. 24 languished in the middle of the pack all day, and it looked like the team was heading toward a forgettable finish. However, a caution on lap 243 for JJ Yeley’s crash created an opportunity to shake up the field. As several drivers in the top 10 went to pit road, Larson, Wallace and Byron were all among the drivers who stayed out to get or keep track position for the final 20 laps.
Larson still held the top spot, but things went horribly wrong for him just one lap after the race resumed on lap 248. While battling wheel-to-wheel with Wallace for the lead, Larson lost control in turn 1, slamming into the SAFER barrier with the tail of his car. His shot at victory disappeared in an instant.
“These cars, compared to the old ones, you don’t really get sucked around like that,” Larson said. “So, I wasn’t really expecting it. I thought that I’d be fine, and we just went in there side by side, and I lost it really quickly and crashed. I’m pretty bummed, but happy for William. Happy for Mr. H. 300 Cup Series wins is incredible. So, great night overall for our organization, and congrats to William.”
Larson’s postrace thoughts could easily sum up his and his teammate’s entire seasons. The No. 5 team has not suffered for a lack of speed in 2023. Larson has led a series-high 897 laps this year, including 273 in the first four playoff races. He won the Southern 500 and scored three top fives in the first three races, suggesting that he would be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason. But Sunday’s race was more typical of the regular season. Larson begins with a fast car but runs into trouble and gets knocked out of contention. Then, Byron swoops in and wins the race, often taking advantage of a late-race restart. It’s a classic tale of speed versus execution, and the momentum has swung back in favor of Byron and execution.
That’s not to say that Byron hasn’t been fast, too. His laps led total for 2023 is nearly equal to Larson’s. The difference is that the No. 24 team has done a much better job of putting complete races together this season than the No. 5.
At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Byron and Larson had by far the two best cars, but it was Byron who prevailed on an overtime restart with Larson finishing second. The very next week at Phoenix Raceway, Byron led 64 laps to Larson’s 201, but Byron made the decisive pass on Larson during another overtime restart. Even in the Cup Series’ first trip to Darlington Raceway this season, Larson was fighting for the lead with six laps to go when he and Ross Chastain crashed. Byron took over the lead and held off the competition the rest of the way.
Byron did not inherit the lead from Larson’s crash at Texas, but that incident, combined with another wreck back in the pack, gave him another shot at the top spot. Restarting third with six laps to go, Byron slipped past Wallace and Chase Briscoe to snatch the lead, the first lead he had all day. He never relinquished it. With the victory, Byron is now locked into the Round of 8.
Larson would have been in good shape himself if he had been able to finish the race. However, the late crash left him with a 31st-place finish and made his championship path much more difficult. He is currently on the playoff bubble, just two points ahead of Wallace for the final transfer spot. To make matters worse for Larson, the Cup Series heads next to Talladega Superspeedway. His fourth-place finish last spring is his only top 10 there since 2017. Drafting tracks are typically a weak spot for Larson, and Talladega is no exception.
If things go badly at Talladega for the No. 5 team, Larson may have to rely on a good result at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL to stay in the title hunt. He did win there in 2021, a win that was crucial to his championship run that season. But last year, Larson finished poorly at the ROVAL and got eliminated from the postseason by a slim margin. Had Larson scored just a few more points in the Round of 12, he would have advanced to the championship race via his win in the third round of the playoffs. The second round of the postseason was Larson’s undoing in 2022, and it could be again. Meanwhile, Byron and his team can prepare for the Round of 8.
In two weeks, Byron could easily be the last man standing at HMS. Larson’s elimination would not guarantee Byron the title, but he and Denny Hamlin would be the two remaining favorites as the season concludes. Larson and the No. 5 team have the speed to recover, yet after another race where a fast car did not yield a good result, his title hopes suddenly look a lot murkier. For now, the advantage is Byron’s.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
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