What a difference a year makes.
William Byron liked what he saw in his first Cup weekend last year at Sonoma Raceway. He qualified strong (eighth), although he finished 25th.
He came back for this weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 a bit wiser and more prepared and the result in Friday’s practices proved that: Byron was 14th in the first session and improved to seventh in the final session.
Next up is Saturday’s qualifying (3:10 p.m. ET).
That he did so well Friday was a bit surprising to Byron, given the close quarter racing and the addition of Sonoma Raceway’s Carousel, which has changed the layout of the track and increased its length from 1.99 miles to 2.52 miles. The Carousel has not been used in Cup competition since 1997.
“It was wild,” Byron said. “I was surprised how much grip the track has lost in some areas. It’s not as black as it was last year, for sure. I feel like it has less grip up the hill into Turn 1, which is kind of interesting. The track was really dirty to start, so it had to get cleaned up. Guys were throwing rocks into the groove too.
“It was different every lap. Some guy would go through there and throw a dust storm up, and you’d have to peek through to see where you were going. That’s part of it.”
As for experiencing the Carousel for the first time, Byron noted: “It’s so blind on entry, so it’s going to be hard to make much out of the entry (on race day). I’m sure there will be some passes there once we are all together and stuffed in there, but I don’t know. I think the biggest area to focus on will be exiting that carousel and trying to get that good so you can launch to the next corner.”
As for using the simulator in preparation for Sonoma, Byron said: “It was really beneficial. I feel like it helped right off the bat during the first couple of laps on the track. I’m glad we did that because I think it was a good advantage for us to have going in here. It just allowed us to open up our practice and not be so worried about speed.
In his sophomore Cup season, Byron has improved over the last five races. After finishing eighth at Dover, Byron was 19th in the standings. In the four races since, he had ninth-place finishes at Charlotte and Pocono and has climbed to 14th in points.
With Chad Knaus as his crew chief this season, Byron has shown steady progress, including leading laps in the last five races, the first time he’s done that in Cup.
“(The key is) all of the little details and things that it takes to win one of these or being in the top five,” Byron said. “I feel like we are learning, the communication is getting better and more upfront.
“We got a chance to do this Spring Mountain (Motor Resort and Country Club in Pahrump, Nevada) trip yesterday with Chad and all the drivers and crew chiefs; that was a lot of fun. I got the chance to take Chad for a ride around the track. I think that’s going to help us this weekend; kind of help him better relate to what’s going on. We will continue to try and improve.”