Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

William Byron and Chad Knaus Speak About Second-Half Success

AVONDALE, Arizona — The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is winding down, but William Byron continued to catch fire in the Valley of the Sun at ISM Raceway.  While the 21-year old would go on to finish 17th due to a late-race restart, he ran inside the top-10 for a large portion of the day, even as high as second at one point.

The Liberty University-product has been crafting a silently impressive season in the Hendrick Motorsports stable. Largely due in part to seven-time Cup Series Championship winning crew chief, Chad Knaus, making the transition to the No. 24 team after 17 season working for the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson.

“It think it comes down to a lot of experience for William,” Knaus told POPULAR SPEED. “He’s getting more familiar with the racetracks because he’s going there for the third, fourth time and that definitely helps. Obviously, William and I are getting closer together with our communication and how he describes things with the race car – that helps tremendously.”

The pair have been able to build chemistry throughout the year, but things didn’t really begin clicking until about Week 14 at Pocono Raceway. By this time, Byron was able to replicate two-consecutive weeks of finishing ninth and qualifying on the pole – in addition to a pole at the Daytona 500 and notching two more top-10’s.

It was at this point the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion solidified that he belonged in the sport’s premier series.

“It’s been really good,” Byron told POPULAR SPEED about his relationship with his new crew chief. “We’ve had our ups and down and such, but we just want to perform well – when we don’t perform well, we aren’t very happy and this was one of those weekends.”

With one race remaining in the season, Byron leads his teammates in highest average finishing position with 14.2 in 35 races. Expanded over the last 10 races, he ranks among the top-10 in average results as well, posting a 12.8. While teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman were able to find victory lane a combined four times in 2019, Byron drove his way to five top-five finishes (two runner-ups), 13 top-10s and led 233 laps.

“I think it’s us being a solid team,” Byron explained. “We definitely surpassed where we thought we were going to be. I think average finish and all of that helps – it’s just going out and doing a solid job every week.”

In the one of the more shocking stats of the year, Byron ranks second in the series in poles with five. The only driver to out qualify him is 2014 Cup Series title holder Kevin Harvick, with six. While all eyes will be on the Championship  4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, this shouldn’t take away from the fact that Byron has the chance to tie the driver of the No. 4 for most pole awards on the season.

With the offseason looming, the driver of the Axalta Chevy Camaro had some thoughts on how to improve as a team during the near-three month break.

“Things change so much,” Byron said. “I think if we can have a good offseason – specifically, making our cars better on the flat-short tracks, I think we can put ourselves in a great position to be here (ISM Raceway) next year.”

Can the driver of the No. 24 put an exclamation point on his breakout season with a successful weekend in the series finale at Miami? Find out next weekend, starting November 16 at 2:05 p.m. ET with Cup Series qualifying on NBCSN and then finally in the Ford EcoBoost 400 the following day at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

Categories
XFINITY

JR Motorsports is Chasing History Heading to Phoenix

AVONDALE, Arizona — As the NASCAR Xfinity Series gears up for the semi-final race at ISM Raceway, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds himself in a position to achieve something only done once previously in series history. With JR Motorsports currently taking up three spots in the Round of 8 – Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and Noah Gragson, a third consecutive title is very possible. 

Allgaier is the lone driver in position to advance to the Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway sitting fourth in the standings, 18 points ahead of Chase Briscoe. Annett finds himself 28 points out of the final spot and Gragson is essentially in a must-win situation sitting in a 47-point hole.

JR Motorsports has won two consecutive championships. The first coming from the current driver of the No. 24 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, William Byron in 2017. The second was with current reigning Xfinity Series Champion is Tyler Reddick – who now races for Richard Childress Racing.

Should Allgaier, Annett or Gragson advance to Miami and win the 2019 Xfinity Series Championship they would eclipse a feat only done once in the series history. BACE Motorsports successfully won three-consecutive championship in NASCAR’s lower division from 1995-97. The first came from Johnny Benson Jr.; Randy LaJoie then drove his way to back-to-back titles from 1996-97.

This will not be an easy task for Annett and Gragson, who both find themselves in essentially a must-win scenario at ISM Raceway.

Annett is in the midst of a career-year driving the No. 1 Chevy Camaro for the 15-year Most Popular Driver recipient, Earnhardt. The driver of the No. 1 captured his first win across all three of NASCAR’s premier series in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. This comes in addition to a season where he has totaled six top-fives and 18 top-10’s with an average finish of 10th through 30 races.

For Annett, he believes his path to Homestead will reside in qualifying.

“Tomorrow is going to be crucial because qualifying at a track like this is at a premium,” Annett said. “This was probably the most beneficial track for group qualifying.”

The 33-year old driver is referring to the transition back to single-car qualifying that was mandated by NASCAR in May. At the start of the 2019 season, many drivers voiced their displeasure with the new group qualifying rule that had just been implemented.

“It’s all about putting the whole weekend together,” Annett further elaborated. “Winning the race is the only way we can go into this. Justin [Allgaier] is so good here and being 28 points behind him, it’s going to be difficult to out-point him.”

The driver of the No. 9 finds himself in the most difficult position of the JRM trio heading into the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 at ISM Raceway. It will be an uphill battle for Gragson who sits eight in the standings, but he is no stranger to success at the Arizona-based track.

While the 20-year old driver is still in search of his first win in the Xfinity Series, he almost found victory lane in the Valley of the Sun in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports last season, ultimately finishing second. Gragson has not been able to notch a top-10 at ISM Raceway in the second-tier series, but he does have an 11th place average finishing position in both of NASCAR’s lower divisions.

On the flip side, Allgaier is in a favorable position heading into a track where he’s had immense success. The driver  of the No. 7 Brandt Chevrolet found victory lane in the desert Spring of 2017 after leading 85 of 200 Laps. The 33-year old started on the pole last Spring and has led an additional 145 Laps since his last win in Avondale, Arizona.

He also posts a 9.1 average finish in 18 starts with six top-fives and 11 top-10’s at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway. This is all in addition to a career-high top-10 streak the Riverton, Illinois-product has strung together over the last 15 races.

But the 10-year series veteran is no where near satisfied.

“The crazy thing is – even with the top-10 streak – I still feel like it’s been a terrible year,” Allgaier said. “There’s been so many races that haven’t gone our way, but it’s definitely helped us grow as a team. We’ve done a great job at rebounding and managing the adversity.”

Allgaier acknowledges the fact that the series is being dominated by “The Big Three,” in Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer. However he believes there’s one thing that sets him apart from the young guns – experience.

“I’m the only driver who’s made the Playoffs every year since they started this format,” Allgaier shared. “Those three guys have had a lot of speed this year and they’ve been very good, but we’ve also noticed that when their days don’t go the way they want to go that they’ve had some challenges dealing with that.”

The odds are in the series veteran’s favor and he is going into the final two races with a must-win mentality. Allgaier is aware that these last events will not come without adversity, but also expressed great joy in the fact that the series finale will be ran at this track where he’s had so much success over his career.

Expect to see the trio of JR Motorsports drivers tomorrow with a heavy emphasis on a positive qualifying effort. If NASCAR superstar Dale Jr. wants to achieve the historical feat of three-consecutive Xfinity Series Championships, the road must go through the 1.5-mile track that is ISM Raceway.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

Categories
News

William Byron rates at the Roval, blasts to fifth Busch Pole of the season

CONCORD, N.C. – William Byron has the knack at his home track, even if the two configurations at Charlotte Motor Speedway are vastly different.

A Charlotte native, Byron won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte back in May on the traditional 1.5-mile oval. On Friday, Byron toured Charlotte’s Roval — a 2.32-mile, 17-turn road course — in 80.932 seconds (103.198 mph) to earn the top starting spot for Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

In winning his fifth Busch Pole Award of the season and the fifth of his career, Byron edged Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman (103.078 mph) by .094 seconds. Byron and Bowman are 12th and 13th, respectively, in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, with the playoff field to be cut to the top 12 drivers after the first-round elimination race.

Byron was quickest despite a brush with the wall in the final chicane.

“Yeah, we’re going to have to fix a quarter panel,” Byron said. “I kind of missed that one, but I was trying to get all I could. I knew I was a little bit weak under the brakes the first couple of runs in Q-trim today, so I tried to fix it and maybe fixed it a little bit too good. … I almost blew it in the last chicane, locking up the tires.

“But the guys did a great job with this car, and it really takes every corner around this race track to get a pole. I knew we could qualify top five, but I really wanted the pole and really kind of went out there and got it. So I’m really proud of this UniFirst team, it’s going to be great to start up front.”

Three of Byron’s poles this season have come at crown jewel races on the Cup circuit: the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Bojangles’ Southern 500.

Bowman acknowledged his teammate’s prowess in the No. 24 Chevrolet.

“That run wasn’t the best,” Bowman said of his own attempt in the final round. “I know it could have been better. William just did a great job there getting through the corners. It’s definitely a positive to be starting on the front row, and we just have to focus on getting stage points on Sunday.”

Joey Logano (103.037 mph) qualified third and will start next to fourth-place Jimmie Johnson, the third of three Hendrick drivers in the top four and the only driver in the top nine not currently in the playoffs. Clint Bowyer claimed the fifth spot on the grid, followed by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick.

Kyle Larson was sixth in time trials, with Martin Truex Jr., the winner of the first two races in the opening round of the playoffs, grabbing the eighth position. Truex is the only Toyota driver to qualify in the top 14.

Ryan Blaney was ninth, followed by Paul Menard, playoff driver Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher, who’s 2020 move from JTG-Daugherty Racing to Roush Fenway Racing was announced this week.

Other playoff drivers qualified as follows: Erik Jones 15th, Kyle Busch 17th, Chase Elliott 19th after a spin in the first round of time trials, Kurt Busch 23rd, Ryan Newman 24th and Denny Hamlin 28th after wrecking in Turn 5 during practice and going to a backup car. Because of the car change, Hamlin will drop to the rear of the field for the start of the race.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Top 5 Throwback Paint Schemes Heading Into Darlington

Following Denny Hamlin‘s bittersweet triumph over Matt DiBenedetto in the exhilarating Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series action comes to a screeching halt and at the perfect time.

For drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer who sit just below the points cutoff for the playoffs, this is the final week without racing for the remainder of the season. With only two races remaining before the Playoffs, these athletes will need every bit of rest and strength as they are thrust into a twelve-week marathon.

According to NBC Sports, the 2019 Bristol night race saw a seven-percent increase from last season in viewership on NBCSN, making it the most successfully televised Saturday Cup Series race on cable in over two years. While the off-week may seem like a cooler for the sport, it can be seen as quite the opposite. When the action resumes for the Cup Series, NASCAR and race fans will be thrown right back into a weekend of intensity and tradition.

After a weekend of excitement and a week of anticipation, the Cup Series ratings should continue to improve as the premier series heads to South Carolina for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Considered one of the sports crowned jewels, the 1.366 mile speedway has always been a highly anticipated weekend. However, since 2015 this has become more than another race weekend; it’s become a celebration and tribute to NASCAR and the legends who paved the way for the sport’s future.

Throwback weekend at ‘The Lady in Black’ is an event where drivers and teams pay homage to drivers from NASCAR’s past. The most popular display of appreciation has come in the form of paint scheme replication. However, we’ve seen everything from hairstyles, fire suits and facial hair being  imitated to near-perfection during the three year span of this tradition.

Here are our Top-5 throwback paint schemes being driven for the Bojangles’ Southern 500:

Photo Courtesy of Darlington Raceway

Brad Keselowski

Ever since the throwback theme began in 2015, Brad Keselowski has consistently had one of the best dressed cars in the garage area for the Southern 500 and this year is no exception. The reigning champion of Darlington is set to run the No. 2 Miller Ford Mustang, a paint scheme made famous by Rusty Wallace who drove the car during his 1996 season.

The No. 2 Mustang features a black base with burnt-yellow numbers and the same color outlining the trim on the car. A subtle red and blue flame design drifts down the side of the car, giving it a very bold look. The design stays true to Wallace’s 1996 Thunderbird, while also staying current with the today’s times.

If the 2012 Cup Series Champion wants to best Wallace’s run with this paint scheme at Darlington, he won’t have to do too much. Wallace started 28th in the Mountain Dew Southern 500 and after getting involved in a wreck on Lap 47, he lost an engine on Lap 102, earning him a 38th place finish.

Keselowski has a great shot at replicating the magic made from last year’s Southern 500. The Michigan-native ranks sixth among active drivers with an average finish of eighth over the last two seasons.

Photo Courtesy of Roush Fenway Racing

Ryan Newman

When you hear mention of the No.6 car, it’s hard not to think of Mark Martin and all the great looking cars he’s driven in his 31-year long career. Ryan Newman will be piloting the same design as Martin’s 1993 Valvoline car. You may remember this paint scheme hitting the track back in 2015 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran it during the inaugural throwback event at Darlington.

Newman and his No. 6 team did a great job in resurrecting this paint scheme with a twist. Martin’s iconic Valvoline Ford Thunderbird featured vibrant reds, blues and whites which corresponded to the sponsor logo. Similarly, Newman’s Oscar Mayer Ford Mustang will feature the same design as Martin, but with Oscar Mayer’s colors of yellow, orange and red. This is a very simple, yet vibrant and clean looking paint scheme.

Martin started fourth in the 1993 Southern 500 and would eventually go on to lead 178 Laps en route to Jack Roush’s first Southern 500 win. With only 14 points keeping Newman safe from Playoff elimination, he is looking forward to a strong run at the 1.366 mile track.

“Darlington is my favorite track on the circuit and the Southern 500 is one of the best events on our schedule,” Newman said in an interview with NASCAR.com. “I can’t wait to come back here and see if we can put this No. 6 back in Victory Lane.”

Photo Courtesy of Stewart-Haas Racing

Clint Bowyer

What year is it again? No, you’re not going crazy and that is not Tony Stewart‘s car pictured above. Three of Stewart-Haas Racing’s drivers will dawn the paint schemes of their boss throughout his illustrious career. The car that specifically caught our eye was Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Ford Mustang, which pays tribute to Stewart’s 2011 Championship winning Office Depot Paint scheme.

This infamous red and black paint scheme will be remembered for the time it was driven in 2011 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Stewart won the race and the Cup Series Championship against Carl Edwards in one of the greatest battles of all time. When Stewart ran the Office Depot car in the Showtime Southern 500 in 2011, he led six laps and ended up finishing seventh.

The driver of the No. 14 will need some his boss’ magic when running his paint scheme on Labor Day weekend. Darlington is statistically Bowyer’s worst track and he has only finished inside the Top-10 one time (back in 2007). The driver from Emporia, Kansas is only two points out of a Playoff spot with two races remaining, but he’ll need to muster up a better finish than the 22.77-place average he’s accumulated in the last 13 races at Darlington.

William Byron

William Byron and the No. 24 team are throwing it back to 1990 when Tom Cruise’s hit-racing movie Days of Thunder premiered. Cruise plays the character of Cole Trickle, a young hot-shot NASCAR driver who quickly makes a name for himself with aggressive racing styles and ease. Although it may not be the most accurate portrayal of NASCAR, the film has become a classic amongst the NASCAR community.

Cruise’s racing hit received love in the first running of the throwback weekend at Darlington when Kyle Larson drove the Mello Yellow sponsored car from the film. Kurt Busch actually ran the same car that Byron is running, but this was back in 2013 in the formerly known NASCAR Nationwide Series.

This vibrant neon yellow and lime green car is nearly impossible to miss on the track. The No. 24 will even stay true to the City Chevrolet sponsor featured on Trickle’s car in the film, as Rick Hendrick owns a dealership of the same name. This is one of the Top-5 throwback paint schemes obviously for the look, but also the irony of it all. Not to mention, the announcement video was pretty spot on.

Byron is a young hot-shot driver who is quickly making a name for himself. He may not have flash the heated tempers like Trickle did, but in his sophomore season, the 21-year old driver is poised to be one of NASCAR’s brightest stars. Byron is 73 points in the good for the Playoff, so unless he wrecks out of both upcoming races and drivers of the bubble do well, a Playoff berth seems likely for the young Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Photo Courtesy of Go FAS Racing

Corey LaJoie

Rounding out our Top-5 throwback paint schemes is Corey LaJoie and his tribute to 1999 Cup Series Champion, Dale Jarrett. This is a bit of an odd one because the paint scheme being honored is Jarrett’s Nestle Crunch car, which was run in the then-called Busch Grand National Series.

This is such a special paint scheme and you know that because it gained so much love and attention even being driven in one of NASCAR’s lower divisions. LaJoie’s car stays true, perfectly to the 1999 Champion’s paint scheme as if you did a quick glance you would think the sponsor on the car is Crunch and not Keen Parts!

Jarrett not only drove this car to victory lane once, but twice! He is also hailed as one of the sport’s best drivers at Darlington Raceway, being ranked 10th overall with three wins, 11 Top-5’s, 13 Top-10’s, three poles in 36 races.

“The car looks great and I’ve always been a fan of Dale, so to carry this scheme around Darlington is awesome,” LaJoie said to NASCAR.com. “I think we did a great job keeping the scheme as close to the original as possible while incorporating the KeenParts.com logos into it. I can’t thank Tom and TJ Keen enough for allowing us to run this design – it’s one of my favorite schemes. I might even have to shave myself a mustache, so I don’t do the car a disservice.”

Tune into the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 1 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time to see the sport’s best athletes paying homage to legends who’ve come before them.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Byron’s Improvement Raises Playoff Hopes

JOLIET, Illinois — 2019 proved to be a slow start to the year for William Byron.

Despite the addition of championship-winning crew chief, Chad Knaus, the No. 24 team stumbled out of the gate, with zero top-10’s in the first six races, leaving him 21st in the series standings.

However, since Martinsville, it seems as if the entire Hendrick Motorsports group has stepped up their game, including Byron. The second-year driver has scored four top-10’s and, has inched his way up to 14th in the standings, 29 points above the cutoff.

“It’s been overall good season for us,” Byron told POPULAR SPEED. “14th in points. Hopefully, improve that this weekend, and keep the upper trend that we’ve got going so far.”

In addition, to the second-year driver has unloaded off the truck fast, tallying seven top-five qualifying efforts.

So, what has been the key to the improvement for Byron?

“Just performance,” Byron said. “I mean, you got to perform throughout the stages and throughout the race to truly have a good result. That’s really been the biggest difference is the stage performances and leaving that to the race.”

Stage performance proved to be huge for the No. 24 last week at Sonoma Raceway, where the team used strategy to gain 18 points and one playoff point after winning Stage 1 and finishing third in Stage 2. 

The strategy was a risk and did end up effecting Byron’s overall finish, but with the points that they earned, it proved to be worthwhile.

So, will there be more gambling for stage points before the playoffs begin? Outside of Watkins Glen and Pocono, Byron says that it’s not likely.

“It’s really only a factor with the way the stages are at the road courses, and really Pocono’s is the only other one where you can do the strategy because you don’t lose a lap based on how big the track is,” Byron said. “Other places like here, and New Hampshire, and Kentucky, you’re not going to be able to do that strategy because the track’s not big enough to not lose a lap. It really shouldn’t be a big factor in the next couple of weeks.”

While strategy earned him his first stage win, the question had to be asked of how close he believes he is to his first win.

“I hope really close,” Byron said. “You know, it’s just a matter of everything coming together. Restart strategy, pit road, the car performance, just has to all come together. So, I think we’re close though.”

This is a team that missed the playoffs last season, and if 2018 is an indication they could be in for a rough road ahead of them. During this stretch (from Chicagoland Speedway of the season last year, the team only had two top-10’s and three finishes below 30th. However, if Byron is able to keep up this same level of performance, the No. 24 should be in good shape to get back into the playoffs.

EMAIL MITCHELL AT mitchell.breuer@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Analyzing Hendrick Motorsports Halfway Through The Season

When the checkered flag waved in Sonoma Raceway, Joe Gibbs Racing saw its tenth win of the 2019 season as Martin Truex Jr. crossed the finish line 1.861 seconds ahead of teammate Kyle Busch. Additionally, they had  three of their four fielded cars finishing in the top five and all four finishing in the Top-10.

What about Hendrick Motorsports? To find the highest scoring Chevy Camaro from their  stable, you’ll have to look back to the twelfth position where seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson wound up. Not to say all four cars didn’t run a good race.

William Byron started from second and led every lap in stage one to capture his first stage win of 2019. Chase Elliott was running well inside the topfive for a large portion of the race and led three laps before an engine failure sent him to the garage. Johnson and Alex Bowman even had themselves strong showings running in the Top-10 for a while.

“What went wrong with Hendrick Motorsports?” This is the question that has been asked since the 2018 season and the answer is simple – they can’t put together a complete race.

Qualifying? Sure, Hendrick Motorsports drivers have sped their way to six poles, eight front row starts and have even swept the top-two spots four times this season. So it’s proven they can begin  a race off the right way, but starting and finishing are two completely different things.

Through 16 points races, Hendrick Motorsports has one win, 10 Top-fives and 22 Top-10s. This of course contrasted to Joe Gibbs Racing’s 10 wins, 27 top fives and 42 Top-10s through that same span.

Once upon a time, both Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing were the dominant teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Here’s a breakdown of the four Hendrick Motorsports driver’s with their strengths, weaknesses, rest of the season outlook and where to expect their next win.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

Alex Bowman 

Bowman turned heads back in 2016 when he won the pole for the Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway and finished sixth while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had been sidelined with a concussion. He then earned himself a full-time ride in the No. 88 car for Hendrick Motorsports when the 16-time most popular driver retired following the 2017 season. Bowman would go on to have a less than stellar campaign in 2018 which carried over early on in 2019.

Bowman has once again captured the attention of NASCAR fans, as he has become arguably the most consistent driver over the last 10 races. In that time, Bowman has has successfully driven himself to five top-10 finishes, including three consecutive runner-up finishes.

A win seems imminent for the Tucson, Arizona native and it’s quite possible that Bowman will be the next Hendrick Motorsports driver to see victory lane. His next best shot? Daytona International Speedway in two weeks. In six races at the 2.5-mile track, Bowman has one pole, one Top-10 finish and has led 14 laps. To be fair, most of Bowman’s attempts at the famed superspeedway were cut short by wrecks, as is the case with most drivers. Never count Bowman out in a plate race; after all, he has superspeedway legend Earnhardt Jr. to lean on for advice.

MATTHEW T. THACKER | NKP

William Byron

Byron came into Cup Series hot after winning the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series title in his rookie season and then taking over driving duties for the famed No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports. Much like the organization as a whole, Byron fell victim to strong starts with failure to put together a complete race in the 2018 campaign. This year, Byron has seen slight improvements with the help from seven-time championship crew chief, Chad Knaus.

It seems as if every week the No. 24 team unloads a fast Chevy Camaro and Byron is a lock to set the quick time in qualifying. Byron began the 2019 season starting from the pole in the Great American Race and is tied with Kevin Harvick for the most poles this season with three. Byron has also qualified on the front row an additional four times. Starting up front obviously has its perks as Byron has led a total of 171 laps this season and captured his first stage win of 2019 at Sonoma, bringing his stage points total to 81 through 16 races.

There’s no doubt that Byron has seen improvements coming off of an average 2018 season, but the theme remains the same– the No. 24 team can’t put together a full race. Whether it’s a pit stop or failing to keep up with changing track conditions, Byron just can’t seem to keep it up front towards the later stages of an event. He is knocking on the door for a win and with a crew chief like Chad Knaus it’s safe to expect a win sooner, rather than later.

Byron’s next best opportunity to win also resides in Daytona. In just three starts at Daytona, Byron has one pole and has led 56 laps. The results may not show just yet, but Byron is a heck of a plate racer. The way he moves through traffic could be compared to the man who drove the No. 24 car before him – Jeff Gordon. Byron is bound for superstardom and you get the feeling that once he gets that first elusive win, things will start to click– much like teammate Chase Elliott.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

Chase Elliott

It could be argued that up to this point that Elliott has been the lone bright spot for this once elite race team. The Cup Series reigning most popular driver leads Hendrick Motorsports in just about every category this season. Not to mention, he has a personality that NASCAR fans of young and old can get behind.

Elliott notched his first win of the season at Talladega Superspeedway  and is the only Hendrick Motorsports car with a win this year. He is actually the only car within the team that has won a points race since the start of 2018. Through 16 races, Elliott leads the organization with 406 laps led, six top-five’s, and seven Top-10s  The only other teammate to have him bested in a single category is Byron, who leads the Cup Series with three poles (Elliott is not far behind with two).

Elliott’s next best shot at a win is essentially anywhere. He is up there every week with the best of them and is always in contention for a win.

NIGEL KINRADE | NKP

Jimmie Johnson

If you had told NASCAR fans in 2017 that after Johnson scored his third win of the season at Dover International Speedway, that he would go on a winless streak that has spanned over two years, they would call you crazy– yet here we are.

After starting 2019 winning the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, nothing has gone right for the seven-time champion. Following a winless 2018 season, the iconic driver/crew chief duo of Johnson and Knaus split, bringing aboard JR Motorsports crew chief Kevin Meendering to the No. 48 team. Johnson has shown brief glimmers of hope and improvement as we near the halfway point  but it seems as if once they take one step forward, they take two steps back.

Johnson only has one top five finish this season and has only led 68 laps through 16 races. On the bright side, he has one pole and six Top-10 finishes. Its not to say Johnson and the No. 48 team don’t have speed as they have shown that, but there are mechanical issues, pit road mis-ques and other abstract incidents that prevented him from garnering a proper finish.

Being a seven-time champion, Johnson knows that putting together a complete race is what breeds success. If the No. 48 team can work out these kinks and silly mistakes, they could be in position to turn their season around. You’d like to think that Johnson and the No. 48 team can turn things around, but could this just be the product of an aging legend?

With 10 races remaining before the playoffs, Johnson sits one point below the cut line. While this is a minuscule margin with a healthy amount of races remaining, he should be not only racing for stage points, but wins as well. It’s tough to say when Johnson  could be in line for his next win. Statistics should say as early as this weekend at Chicago, but that’s not the case.

Realistically, you have to look seven weeks ahead to Michigan International Speedway. This is a track which has been both a friend and foe to Johnson. While he only has one win in the Irish Hills, this is one of Johnson’s stronger tracks and he leads all active drivers with 700 laps led at the two-mile speedway.  It should be noted that Johnson was in line for quite a handful of wins at Michigan until multiple last lap incidents prevented him from winning.

Elliot is currently the only Hendrick Motorsports driver locked into the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Bowman sits 10th in the standings, 69 points above the cut line. Byron is 14th in the standings, just 31 points above Johnson who is just outside the playoff picture. Can Hendrick Motorsports turn things around at the halfway point? Only time will tell.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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News

William Byron becomes youngest pole sitter for Coca-Cola 600

CONCORD, N.C. – On Thursday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski opined that the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets were the fastest cars in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage.

Turns out he was right — about one of them, at least.

As twilight approached at the 1.5-mile intermediate track, William Byron turned a lap in 29.440 seconds (183.424 mph) in his No. 24 Chevy to win the pole position for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), earning the distinction as the youngest pole winner in the 60-year history of NASCAR’s longest race—and at Charlotte Motor Speedway, for that matter.

In winning his second Busch Pole Award of the season and the second of his fledgling career, the 21-year-old Charlotte native was .057 seconds faster than second-place qualifier Aric Almirola, who turned a lap at 183.069 mph in his No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

“This is a dream come true,” Byron said, after watching teammate Alex Bowman fall short as the final driver to make a qualifying run. “Obviously, I grew up in Charlotte and came to this race every year. So it’s a dream come true to qualify on the pole with Hendrick Motorsports just across the street and all the hard work and everybody at Chevrolet giving us fast race cars.

“This is pretty cool. I can’t think of a better way to start the weekend.”

Kyle Busch was third in the fastest Toyota at 182.933 mph. Austin Dillon qualified fourth, followed by Stewart-Haas teammates Kevin Harvick and Daniel Suarez.

Byron is seeking his first Cup victory, but his crew chief, seven-time champion Chad Knaus, has four wins in the Coca-Cola 600, and Byron feels their level of communication has been on an upswing.

“Yeah, just the dialogue we have in the hauler or transporter or whatever you want to call it,” Byron said. “We go back and forth on communication changes. It’s starting to improve for us, and that’s where the speed is coming from. Also, the cars are getting faster. So this is really exciting.”

Joey Logano was seventh fastest, followed by Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Hemric, as Ford drivers nailed down six of the top 10 positions on the grid.

Keselowski, who qualified 21st, was slightly off the mark about the other three Hendrick cars. Chase Elliott qualified 12th, Bowman 13th and seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson 15th. Johnson, who has eight victories at Charlotte, hopes to break a winless streak that has reached 71 races.

“There are three of our Hendrick cars right there with us,” Johnson said. “The 24 (Byron) had an incredible lap, so we’ll try to dig in and see just how committed they were to qualifying. I think we were a bit more in a race scenario, the way it looks at my quick glance, but we just have to stick together as a group.

“The fact that three of our cars were there and so close in speed is a great starting spot for all of us. We had a couple of cars that ran good in the All-Star Race (last Saturday) and a couple that didn’t. Mine was one that didn’t. To piggy-back on what those guys had going on is the goal for us this weekend, and we’ll see how that translates to the race.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

FIVE DRIVERS TO WATCH: TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway

Through the first three races this season, there has been a different winner each week. The trend will look to continue this weekend as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tackles the tricky ISM Raceway.

Here are five drivers to keep an eye on this weekend.

Kevin Harvick has become the king of the desert over the past five years, winning half of the 10 races ran during that period with an average finish of 2.7. With the Fords showing a dominant speed from the drop of the first green flag this year, it’d be no surprise to see the trend continue.

After all, he has scored a fourth-place finish the past two weeks at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Russell Labounty | NKP

Kyle Busch has been the most consistent driver without a visit to victory lane yet this season, scoring no finishes outside of the top-six to currently rank third in the standings. He also knows what it takes to be successful at ISM Raceway, winning last fall to propel him into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Notably, he has the second-best average (7.3) of all drivers over the past 10 races at ISM with eight top-10 finishes.

Busch arguably had the quickest car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this past weekend, but a pit road speeding penalty in the second stage dropped him deep in the field. It wasn’t the first pit road error, as he experienced loose wheels in both the Gander Outdoor Truck Series and Xfinity Series events before winning. Making sure that he has a smooth day will help ensure success on Sunday.

Kyle Larson has also shown speed since the beginning of the season, which just builds upon the success experienced through last summer. However, similar to Busch, he needs to clean up his races if he wants to close the deal. Pit road penalties at Atlanta and Las Vegas took him out of contention to win both events, resulting in 12th-place finishes. With teammate Kurt Busch scoring back-to-back top-five finishes, it’s time for Larson to pick up the pace – or else he may no longer be considered the top dog at Chip Ganassi Racing.

He knows how to run well at ISM Raceway, scoring three top-five finishes in the last 10 starts, including a third last fall.

Nigel Kinrade | NKP

Chase Elliott proved to be the strongest car out of the Hendrick Motorsports stable through the back half of last year, and is once again showcasing that again. He has ran inside the top-10 through the first three races this season, though wrecked late at Daytona International Speedway and confusion over the rules bit him at Atlanta Motor Speedway. However, a steady performance without any hiccups at Las Vegas produced the top-10, with a ninth-place finish.

No matter how the year is going for the second generation racer, he has always been able to find success at ISM Raceway, boasting the third-best average of active drivers over the past 10 races. In his three most recent starts at the Arizona-track, he has finished second and third, and ran in the top-10 last fall before being taken out in a late-race wreck.

Elliott praised the team’s recent performance at Las Vegas, noting they were closer than they were this time last year. What would be a better morale boost than a visit to victory lane?

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron did not have the rookie season he wanted last year with only four top-10 finishes. One of those, though, was a ninth-place finish at ISM Raceway in November.

Now partnered with Chad Knaus for the 2019 campaign, Bryon hit the year off with fireworks by scoring the pole for the Daytona 500, but hasn’t seen the results live up the expectations. He has steadily shown improvement each week, and could break through with a top-10 this weekend to give him the confidence needed moving forward.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Byron’s DAYTONA 500 Pole Draws Parallels to Johnson and Knaus

Seventeen years ago this month, a pair of the most formidable sports dynasties of this century began with two of the most successful athlete and coach pairings of all-time.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick paired for their first full-time season together in 2001 with the New England Patriots, then going on to win its first Super Bowl on Feb. 3, 2002.

One week later, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus began their tenure together by claiming the 2002 DAYTONA 500 pole in Johnson’s fourth career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start.

Both feats came as upsets in their individual sports and also marked the start of two historic runs.

Each duo has since gone onto win a record number of championships and earn their places among the best of all-time.

Seventeen years later to the exact dates, Brady and Belichick claimed their sixth championship and one week later, Knaus again led the DAYTONA 500 pole-winning team.

However, this time it was with another young racer as Knaus begins his first season with William Byron after moving on from the seven-time championship-winning No. 48 team with Johnson.

Knaus began his career with Johnson by claiming the top starting spot in the “Great American Race” and now Byron has followed suit with Knaus calling the shots.

While one pole at a superspeedway doesn’t indicate much, reflecting on the significance of the achievement in Johnson and Knaus’ careers opens the possibilities for Byron to replicate that success.

Byron entered his rookie year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last season as one of the most promising talents to emerge out of the developmental ranks in years. He dominated during his time in the NASCAR Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series, winning a combined 11 races in two seasons and taking the 2017 Xfinity Series championship.

Prospects for the 21-year-old were high entering the premiere level but tougher competition and a steeper learning curve tempered expectations.

While the Hendrick Motorsports driver didn’t dominate in his first year as he had in the other two series, he showed signs of strength and won rookie of the year honors.

Now he enters his sophomore year with more experience, both behind the wheel and on the pit box. Knaus is arguably the most talented crew chief in NASCAR history and his pairing with a rising star has laid the groundwork to launch the next dynasty.

Even if the No. 24 team had not posted the fastest lap Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, the ingredients for this duo to be successful still exist.

As Byron continues to grow comfortable behind the wheel of a NASCAR Cup Series car, the talent he showed in his rise to the top level will likely emerge. Coupled with the wealth of knowledge Knaus brings to the table could allow them to put up impressive numbers. 

No one could predict what Johnson and Knaus would accomplish after winning the DAYTONA 500 pole 17 years ago. It’s unknown what Knaus and Byron will do together. However, knowing Byron’s talent and the seven-time championship-winning crew chief’s capabilities means this pole could also be reflected back on as having begun a new dynasty.

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News

William Byron earns the Busch Pole Award for the Daytona 500; Hendrick sweeps front row

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Paired for the first time with crew chief Chad Knaus, sophomore driver William Byron put his No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on the pole for the Feb. 17 Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), leading a Hendrick Motorsports sweep of the top four spots and extending that organization’s dominance in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying at Daytona International Speedway.

Byron edged last year’s pole winner, Alex Bowman, by .036 seconds for the top starting spot in the 61st running of NASCAR’s most prestigious race with a lap at 194.305 seconds (46.319 seconds) in the final round of knockout qualifying.

Bowman’s lap at 194.154 seconds knocked seven-time Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson (193.807 mph) off the front row for the 500. Johnson, in turn, beat two-time Daytona 500 pole winner Chase Elliott (193.782 mph) for the third fastest lap by .006 seconds.

The Busch Pole Award was the first for Byron in 37 tries. The 21-year-old is the eighth driver to contribute to the total of 13 Daytona 500 poles won by Hendrick Motorsports, which won its fifth straight.

Only Byron and Bowman are locked into their starting sports for next Sunday’s race. The remaining 38 starting positions will be determined in Thursday night’s Gander RV Duel 150-mile qualifying races (7 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“We felt we were prepared and ready and this was sort of the first step of our process together,” Byron said of his new partnership with Knaus, who moved to the No. 24 car this year after winning seven titles as Johnson’s crew chief.

“Hopefully, it goes well next Sunday. We can kind of hang out during the Duel races, learn a little bit. It’s awesome.”

The pole was the 700th for Chevrolet in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

As fast his car was, Byron acknowledged his lap wasn’t quite perfect.

“We lacked a little bit getting up to speed,” Byron said. “I think a little bit too much wheel spin. This thing is fast, and it’s obviously a lot of credit to the guys. I’m looking forward to next Sunday.”

In a session that both establishes the front row for next Sunday and sets the lineups for the Duels, Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Daniel Hemric qualified fifth in his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, giving Chevy the top five laps in the final round.

Reigning Cup champion Joey Logano was sixth in the fastest Ford—the first competitive outing in the Cup series for the new Mustang—and 2017 champ Martin Truex Jr. was seventh in the quickest Toyota entry.

Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Paul Menard and Denny Hamlin completed the top 12. The last driver to make a qualifying run in the first round, Truex knocked Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (13th) out of the top 12.

“We ran about what we thought we would, maybe a tick better,” Busch said. “Didn’t expect the rest of the field to be as fast as they are, so we’re a little farther down on the lineup than we’d like to be.”

Two of the six drivers in open cars—those without charters—locked themselves into the Daytona 500. The first was Tyler Reddick, who was a strong 16th in the first round. The second was Casey Mears, who edged the non-chartered No. 71 Chevrolet of Ryan Truex by .028 seconds for the 26th fastest lap.

Truex, Brendan Gaughan (31st), Parker Kligerman (36th) and Joey Gase (42nd) will vie in Thursday night’s Gander RV Duels for the two remaining berths in the Great American Race.