AVONDALE, AZ. — Pole sitter William Byron set the tone early on with an opening stage win, but a tight Camaro and the track conditions changing became a detriment to his quest for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway Sunday.
Rather than hoisting the Bill France Trophy, Byron finished fourth in the race and third in points behind teammate Kyle Larson and newly crowned Cup champion Ryan Blaney.
Right away, Byron explained as the race progressed, the one-mile oval began gaining rubber which affected his No. 24 Axalta machine and after leading the first 92 laps, he would only lead three more laps. All of them lasting a lap apiece as his battle was against those he’s fighting for the title, but also those who have nothing to lose.
One in particular being Kevin Harvick, who wasn’t going to wrap up his racing career without a strong race. In the closing laps of Stage 1 and in the start of Stage 2, both battled hard as Harvick gradually gained ground on Byron and took the lead on Lap 93.
Harvick’s quest for a 10th Phoenix win wasn’t meant to be as he ended his decorated NASCAR career with a seventh-place finish. Byron reflected on the memories he’s had with the 2014 Cup Series champion.
“Kevin has been super good to talk to. I talked to him in my rookie season. At this track especially, he’s amazing. That first run was fun to watch him, just the way he works the racetrack, just how he manipulates his car,” Byron on Harvick.
“It will be nice to pick his brain on Phoenix. It’s going to be cool to see him go into the broadcast booth. He’s been a great race car driver to race against. Respectful but really tough to race with.”
After losing the lead to Harvick, Byron would remain consistently in the top-five and would remain in touch with the leaders. However, the 25-year-old had nothing on race winner Ross Chastain and champion Ryan Blaney.
All he can do is think how the car began struggling once the track began to rubber in.
“I thought we were probably the best, but we had clean air, too. I thought when we had clean air, like, we were trying to perfect our balance out front,” said Byron. “Once we got back second to fifth really, we just didn’t have the turn. We couldn’t keep up with him. Especially running up the racetrack. We could run lower and kind of get out of the leftover resin up there, but we couldn’t rotate up there.”
As the season was coming to a close, Byron felt his odds were returning in his favor until the final caution came out for Kyle Busch. It bunched up the field one more time, but Byron’s pace left a lot to be desired and had nothing for Blaney or Larson.
“I feel like we all raced really hard. I felt like in stage one and two I could kind of take Ryan’s lane away a little bit and get him tight. Then once he got in front of us, it was really hard to chase him back down,” Byron explained.
“With Larson, I thought we were pretty even. It was really who came off pit road. He did a good job the last run. They had more speed than us the last run. The last run of the race we just were pretty tight there.”
Disappointed on the outcome, Byron can still look back on his best all-around season of his career with a lot of fondness. It includes leading the series in wins with six, top-10s with 21 and equaled with Larson with most top-fives at 15.
“It’s a bit of a letdown based on how we started the race. As soon as we got into stage two, trying to figure out how do we manage what we have, maybe make it a little bit better if we can,” Byron commented. “But we just need more on the short tracks. We just struggled as a team on the short tracks.
“We had a great season, a lot to be proud of, a lot of really solid races, communicating well as a team. I feel like all that stuff can just go up a notch hopefully, just have a bit more speed at certain tracks that we know are important.
“Definitely down the stretch here it was tough. We didn’t have really what we needed, but that’s okay.”