Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After William Byron Dominates at COTA

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Can you pick a title favorite after just six races? It may be a little early yet, but if you did, it might have to be William Byron. Byron took his second win of 2024, his second in the last three road course contests and his 12th career victory in Sunday’s (March 24) EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas. 

Byron won the pole for the race and led 42 of the 68 laps in a dominant performance, holding off a charging Christopher Bell by .692 seconds.

See also
William Byron Holds Off Christopher Bell, Wins in Austin

Byron didn’t have the fastest car at the end, but he had track position, and most importantly, he didn’t make a single mistake for Bell to pounce on. 

And don’t forget Joey Logano. For a two-time champion, Logano probably isn’t happy with an 11th-place result, but this one is his best finish in the last three years at COTA and his second-best of 2024. With four finishes of 22nd or worse in six races, Logano needs any bright spots he can find, and Sunday was one. He started 35th on Sunday, his worst qualifying effort of the year (he has two poles and four top-five starts) but was able to turn that into a respectable if not spectacular finish. 

That’s something to build on. Right now, that’s what Logano needs. It’s not time to hit the panic button yet — Logano usually finds consistency during the regular season, and it’s that consistency that gets him into the playoffs and through the rounds. He needs to pick it up, but there’s still time if the turnaround comes soon.

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

We’ve seen some really good racing so far in 2024. TV ratings are up. Everything’s coming up roses so far.

But can NASCAR sustain the momentum?

At the end of the day, it isn’t a Netflix series that will keep the curious around, it’s the racing. And what NASCAR does in the next couple of months to sustain the excitement is going to be important. 

The Next Gen car has been solid on the intermediate tracks, and there are four of those in the seven events leading into the All-Star Race in May. Talladega Superspeedway falls in that stretch, too, and that will be exciting, even if for all the wrong reasons. 

But what NASCAR needs to do is twofold: It needs to make teams have to manage equipment, maybe not as much as they did at Bristol Motor Speedway, but more than at most tracks. Whether that’s through tire management or something else, unpredictability makes the racing better

Also, it needs to do exactly what they did on Sunday and let races play out. COTA was a mediocre race because the tires didn’t wear out enough, a complete turnaround from last week. Still, NASCAR didn’t throw unnecessary cautions for spins that didn’t need them, and the race had some really good moments, though most of them happened deeper in the field.

Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Defending race winner Tyler Reddick has finished in the top five in three of his four COTA starts, putting him in an elite group along with Alex Bowman and Ross Chastain. Reddick didn’t quite have the speed he had in his winning run a year ago, leading just one lap and scoring just two stage points, but he never let the race get away from him. He didn’t have the speed to match the top three, though he was catching Bowman in fourth at the end. Reddick finished fifth, right on his average.

Chastain, who got his first career Cup win at COTA, took his career-worst finish on Sunday … in seventh. Chastain led 10 laps and looked like he had the speed to contend, but a slow pit stop under green on the final cycle left him to contend with traffic while Byron had clear sailing in the final stint.

See also
Xfinity Breakdown: Kyle Larson Ends Up in the Right Place at the Right Time

Point leader Kyle Larson won the Xfinity race on Saturday, so it might have been easy to think he’d have an edge on Sunday. Larson never found the speed that his teammates did, though. He didn’t lead a lap or score a single stage point. He was spun by Bell in the first half, but it’s hard to point to the incident as the cause of his woes. Nor did he have any penalties like teammate Chase Elliott that put him behind the curve. Larson finished 18th.

When… was the moment of truth?

Byron didn’t have the fastest car at the end of the race. Bell had fresher tires and played his pit strategy perfectly. Bell shaved a five-second lead to under a second in less than five laps. On the final run, he was fast enough to catch Byron by the end.

So why didn’t he?

It was Bell’s young teammate Ty Gibbs who took away his chance to win.

Bell ran Gibbs down with about three to go and was clearly much faster. But Gibbs raced Bell hard, and it took more than a lap for Bell to clear Gibbs. Racing Gibbs cost Bell about 1.2 seconds to Byron.

He lost by half of that.

To an extent, it’s every man for himself in the closing laps, but Gibbs not letting his teammate by cost his organization a chance at a win. If Gibbs had had a car capable of running down Byron, it would be different as the organization would still benefit. But he didn’t and Bell did.

It also cost race fans a good finish.

At the end of the day, drivers are in it for themselves, and if this was a playoff race, or a race late in the regular season to make the playoffs, then you don’t care if your teammate can win. But it’s March. A win for Bell would have meant playoff points and perhaps a better seeding come fall.

Gibbs wasn’t going to get a win. He shouldn’t have kept his grandfather from getting one too.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

After the first road course of the year, it’s back to the East Coast and Richmond Raceway for an Easter weekend of short-track racing.

Don’t expect another Bristol, though. While the Next Gen car has struggled on the short tracks and the flat tracks in general, the next two — Richmond and Martinsville Speedway — are where it’s most noticeable. Richmond hasn’t really put on a great show for years, and with next week being a night race, that could further hurt the event. 

The 2024 season started off with some exciting races and great finishes. Keeping that momentum up is critical when it comes to keeping the ratings up. The next two races are important on that front.

See also
Stage Cautions, Lack of Restarts Lead to COTA Snoozer

How… come NASCAR put the stage breaks back in on road courses?

Last year’s road course races were much, much better without the breaks. So why are they back?

It’s not like the networks ran fewer green-flag commercials without the cautions (like they said they would), so why exactly do we need them again?

The stage cautions aren’t necessary anywhere, but they especially hurt on the road courses, where they alter the strategy teams use when planning pit stops. Less strategy often means a less interesting race and finish, and between that and a road course package that doesn’t really make for great racing, it’s not a good combination.

The road courses were notably better last year without the breaks, which last way too long (stage two restarted as they came to lap four of the stage). There’s no need for three laps of caution for a stage break when the track is over 3 miles long—do a quickie yellow, let everyone pit together and go right back green in two laps if you have to have the caution. While we’re at it, keep it to three laps on the ovals.

Going back to throwing stage cautions on road courses is a step backwards for the sport. 

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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janice

guess ty gibbs forgot about team orders from his grandfather.

i’m beginning to wonder if chase elliott is not snakebit like the other “sons of famous drivers”.

be interesting to see richmond, however 7 pm sunday night…..some of us have to go to work in the morning. hopefully mother nature will cooperate. spring in the mid atlantic is always a crap shoot.

Bill B

Why not Saturday night for the Richmond race? Or even a 4:00 start on Sunday?
Nothing like making you fans chose between a race or a rough Monday morning at work.

Jeremy

If there are any team order at Gibbs, you can bet they would be written to benefit Granpappy’s baby!

And I agree, late or night races should be run on Saturday.

Bill B

Agree, the road courses are much more interesting without predetermined cautions.

wildcatsfan2016

Janice, I think you are right, Ty forgot about those team orders! I’m not a Chase Elliott fan so I’m OK when he doesn’t do well, but I realize that he has a lot of fans.

Oh man, I’m glad you mentioned the start time of the race. NASCAR used to skip Easter weekend for its races but I guess that isn’t possible these days. Actually it is possible, they just don’t want to. Like you, I have to work in the morning so I doubt that I will see the end of the race. Right now the weather forecast for the weekend looks good but that’s a long way off. I hope that it works out. I’ve been at Richmond in May for a Saturday night race and it was rainy & cold. They ran some laps under caution but the rain had been falling all day so they finally postponed until Sunday. We drove home & watched it on TV the next day. Spent a lot of $$ for nothing because work schedules wouldn’t allow us to drive 5 hrs back there on Sunday. Oh well. Live & learn. After being miserable in the rain for several hours I never went to another race w/o rain gear.

Shayne

I watched the beginning of the race and soon grew tired of the bumper car mentality. That’s NASCAR, but I’m not so sure I really care for that style of racing. I’ll take it seriously when NASCAR has the balls to penalize someone for rough driving. A car needs to be able to negotiate a turn without being plowed into by the car behind for no good reason.

Kevin in SoCal

Stage break yellows should not count as laps. That just takes away our green flag racing. I understand the point of the stage breaks is to make the drivers race all race instead of just the end, so we can’t just get rid of them.

DoninAjax

What about the drivers who pit just before the TV time out? They want to be closer to the front on the chaos due to the double file restarts. The others stay out to get POINTS!
There doesn’t have to a caution flag and everybody knows that. Can you say “COMMERCIALS? Network attempts at ROI.

Last edited 25 days ago by DoninAjax
Shayne

Didn’t NASCAR use smaller fuel cells in the car on road courses in the past? COTA can be configured in a number of ways, but I doubt that would make any difference the way things stand.

DoninAjax

I believe they did for a while but went back to 22 gallon tanks.

Jeremy

They could award stage points without stopping the race if they wanted to.

Jeremy

And I totally agree that caution laps should not count toward the total, but due to TV… That’s one thing that streaming services could provide – a platform which does not have to rigidly conform to a TV timeslot.

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