By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
RICHMOND, VA – A late-race decision to split the final Stage of the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway in half ultimately left William Byron third at the checkered flag.
As Christopher Bell had done in Stage 2, Byron pitted with about 100 laps to go in the final Stage. The Hendrick Motorsports driver assumed the lead when he stayed out under the final caution with 136 laps to go. Byron held on until he eventually ducked onto pit road for tires and fuel.
The call by crew chief Rudy Fugle to not pit again eventually cycled Byron’s No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE back to the lead. Meanwhile those that had pitted with the Charlotte, N.C. native with 100 to go, including eventual race winner Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, returned to pit road later in the race. The difference in tire wear ultimately allowed Hamlin and Harvick to surge forward in the closing laps.
“We just needed five less laps,” admitted Byron. “It didn’t quite work out there. There were times when lappers were passing me, it got me out of shape, especially if they got to me on corner exit. It would really get me out of shape. I had to manage the throttle so much. I was only quarter throttle so as soon as I would slip (the tires or hit them) up it was it was game over. Just trying to keep that pace, I thought we did probably the best job we could.
“I thought there at the end when they told me that I was just racing the 19. ‘I’m like okay, I got him,’ but the 4 and the 11 were on a totally different planet. Just part of it. Different tire strategies and it didn’t work out.”
Byron had maintained his gap to Martin Truex Jr. However, he was unaware of the speed that both Hamlin and Harvick had until five laps to go. A combination of the tire falloff and lapped traffic slowly took the grip and life out of Byron’s tires. That accelerated the NASCAR Cup Series driver’s loss in time to Hamlin and Harvick. After both drivers swept by, Byron took the checkered flag in third.
“There’s nothing I could do about them,” explained Byron. “Brandon Lines (spotter) was just coaching me on keeping the tires underneath it and having good exits and good entries and making those. Especially making those guys go around me on the top was definitely better.
“The times that guys would get underneath me, it was really, really hard to get back connected, get up, put a good lap, put together because the tires were shot anywhere off of the paint. Really needed the paint to make it work and felt like we made it work okay.”
Byron qualified on the outside pole for the 400-lap race. He held on to the spot throughout the first Stage of the race, netting an additional nine points.
The third-place finish is Byron’s third top-five finish this season. It’s also the 26th career top-five finish in the Cup Series for the 24-year-old.
The top-five moved Byron up from sixth to fourth in the points standings. He’s 23-points behind leader, and teammate, Chase Elliott. Byron’s locked into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs by virtue of his win at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Featured Photo Credit: Photo by Rachel Schuoler / Kickin’ the Tires.