AVONDALE, Ariz. – If Kevin Harvick’s moniker is “The Closer,” perhaps it is time to call William Byron “Big Bad.”
In this case, the 25-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina native is simply clutch in the big game moments and bad to the bone with his cool demeanor.
After tallying a dominant victory last weekend at Las Vegas, Byron entered Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway with unflappable confidence. Earning the third fastest time in qualifying, the driver of the No. 24 Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro wasted little time picking up where he last left things a week ago.
Byron captured the Stage 1 win before placing second in Stage 2.
Throughout a majority of Stage 3, Byron struggled with long run pace against the likes of Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Tyler Reddick. Dropping to fourth in the race’s waning moments, Harrison Burton’s spin past the start/finish line stripe adjacent to the dogleg brought everyone, including Byron, back into the picture.
Opting for two right side tires and fuel along with Larson, Ryan Blaney, Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin, the sixth year Cup racer was in a luxurious position. He could go for the win and net additional Playoff points or risk it all and come up short without much consequences.
While Byron did not have the best restart on Lap 310, a late race crash involving AJ Allmendinger, Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs offered one last chance at victory. On this occasion, Byron had one more trick up his sleeve.
As Larson led the field in the Overtime restart, he staved off a hard charging Blaney just past the dogleg stripe.
That is when Byron pulled a bit of his best Ron Bouchard move, driving deep into the outside lane alongside Larson before passing him off Turn 2. From there, it was game, set and match as Byron won his second consecutive Cup race of 2023.
Although Byron got the job done behind the wheel, he sang his praises with Rudy Fugle, his crew chief, on another brilliant pit call.
“I owe the last couple of weeks to him,” Byron said. “He’s done a really good job strategy-wise, and execution-wise we’ve done a good job to put ourselves in those positions on the front row with a shot at the end.
“Thanks to everybody back at Hendrick Motorsports putting together great cars and just doing a great job. It’s a big credit to them, the engine shop, Mr. (Rick) Hendrick and everybody. It’s cool to have Valvoline back on the car with a really historic-looking paint scheme, so it’s nice to get into Victory Lane.”
Meanwhile, Larson gave it everything he had for a second week in a row. The venue and circumstances may differ but the outcome was relatively the same as the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion wound up placing fourth after a dominant performance.
“I thought I drove in far enough to at least that if he chased me in I thought he would get too high and into the marbles,” Larson said. “I think that top lane just got a little bit better the last 50 laps or so. I didn’t run in far enough and ended up getting beat.
“It’s a bummer, but William again executed the last two races a little bit better than I did. Congrats to him and their team. We’ll try to keep these good runs up.”
Much like Larson, it has been a somewhat feast or famine start for Blaney in 2023. Nevertheless, a runner-up may be the start of bigger things for the Team Penske driver.
“The last restart I thought… I got to the bottom of those guys into Turn 2… that I was in a good spot for Turn 3,” Blaney said. “I think the No. 45 kind of helped the No. 24 – got him a push down the back and got him a good spot. He had an advantage going in there.
“Close… but I wasn’t really close enough to the No. 24 going into Turn 3 to do anything. Overall: Pretty good day. We got a lot better all day. We finished a little better than I thought we’d run. So, that was positive.”
Reddick rounded out the podium finishers with a finish that left him with a bit of a sour taste in his mouth.
“I just needed to execute on that restart. Just didn’t get the launch I needed to with Williams’ back bumper to take advantage of it in turn one. Very frustrating naturally. Last year, same thing, didn’t have the best of restarts and finished third,” Reddick said.
After scoring back-to-back victories, Byron has a solid chance at winning a third consecutive race with next Sunday’s Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on FOX and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) looming. As the defending race winner, Byron could draw considerable daylight between himself and his championship contending rivals.
Least to say, Byron knows he has been the beneficiary of opportune timing and fortune, two intangibles that the best athletes in the world would not refuse.
“It’s big,” he said. “You’ve got to have a chance there on the front row to really have clean air on your nose and make the right moves. We were able to get on the front row there and stay on the outside of Kyle the second time and have a good enough restart.
“Those green-white-checkers, you can either wreck or win. We’ve been on the good side of them for a couple of weeks.”
Stage 1 Top 10 Finishers
Stage 2 Top 10 Finishers
United Rentals Work United 500 Top 10 Finishers at Phoenix