A lucky escape set the stage for William Byron to click off another strong finish Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
Byron, along with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, were sent spinning into the infield grass as part of a multi-car incident just before the final lap of Stage 2.
But Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet avoided splitter damage in the grass and then oncoming traffic.
“Once I saw (Denny Hamlin) getting turned into the fence, I saw it developing,” said Byron, who recovered from the incident to finish second. “As soon as you start to see somebody kind of lose momentum, you see some contact, even the slightest contact, I usually try to either check up at these places, or turn and go around it.
“I don’t know if that was the right thing to do or not. Obviously I got spun out, was able to keep it out of the outside wall. Our guys were able to execute good, fix the car up, get it reasonable to where we could be a good pusher.”
Crazy day yesterday! After the spin avoiding the stage 2 wreck, the guys fixed it up and kept us in contention. Came home 2nd after that. Great effort by this team, we keep improving. @LibertyU @TeamHendrick @TeamChevy pic.twitter.com/WVDw9x9rrL
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) April 26, 2021
As it turned out, he almost pushed himself to a win.
Taking the overtime restart in ninth on the inside lane, Byron appeared to get into Daniel Suarez after the white flag. Suarez briefly went sideways before saving it and dropping to the apron.
When the field came back to Turn 4, Byron was tucked behind Michael McDowell and leader Brad Keselowski. But when McDowell tried to go to the outside of Keselowski in the tri-oval, Byron didn’t go with him.
“As soon as he tried to go outside of (Keselowski), I just didn’t have enough momentum to kind of get to (Keselowski) and do something,” said Byron. “I was kind of a sitting duck. Like I said, we had damage. Obviously, once the car would see clean air, it wasn’t that fast. But in the draft, we were pretty good still.”
For McDowell’s part, he said he was trying to “drag back” to Byron in order to set up a run on Keselowski.
“From what I could tell, I just didn’t drag Brad back enough when I got to his right rear,” McDowell said. “He did a good job of pulling to the left, kind of getting me off of his right rear.
“It was close. If (Byron) would have stayed up with us, we would have definitely had the momentum. We would have got Brad. But I understand, too, (Byron) is trying to win the race. You’re trying to look out the front and the back at the same time and make a good decision.”
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Near-misses aside, Byron and McDowell’s good seasons continued with their results.
Byron has rattled off eight top-10 finishes in a row starting from his win in February at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He, crew chief Rudy Fugle and the No. 24 team are living up to weekly contender status.
“There’s been a few obstacles that we’ve already cleared,” Byron said of his year so far. “Now we’re going into the racetracks that are kind of the bread and butter of our team.”
As for McDowell, he has four top 10s this season to match his career high set last season. In 2020, he didn’t get his fourth top 10 until September at the Bristol Night Race.
“It’s a dream come true,” McDowell said. “This is what I’ve worked so hard to be in a position like this: To run well consistently, to have the opportunity to perform.”
Save of the day?
Suarez’s booting on the final lap relegated him to a 23rd-place finish after he had to make perhaps Sunday’s biggest save.
Trackhouse posted a clip of the incident on social media, and it’s clear that it could’ve gone worse.
— Trackhouse Racing (@TeamTrackhouse) April 25, 2021
As for Suarez himself, he tweeted Monday that “we were where we needed to be when it counted. Not the result we deserved.”
Keep in mind that it’s the second time in three weeks that a bump from Byron has cost Suarez.
At Martinsville, Byron bumped Suarez out of the way and into the wall, causing Suarez to fall back in the field. Not long after, Suarez was collected in a 12-car crash that red-flagged the race with 115 laps to go; Suarez subsequently expressed his displeasure with Byron by throwing his water bottle at him.
Going back to Sunday, it also cost Richard Childress Racing an opportunity to come out of Talladega with three top 10s (Trackhouse, a new Cup organization this season, is aligned with RCR).
RCR drivers Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon avoided problems on the final lap to finish seventh and eighth, respectively.
While Reddick took himself to task for choosing not to help Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney on the last lap, Dillon was glad to take the result after running around 15th at the white flag.
“We were really good to start the race, and then for portions of the race, we couldn’t make anything work unless I was on the top,” said Dillon. “We made some moves at the end of the race to get that eighth-place finish. Everyone was all over the place and that was some work.
“We hit someone on the outside quarter panel, but I’m not even sure who it was. We were all wrecking on the backstretch, but somehow it didn’t happen. I don’t know how we all came out of that. It was crazy.”
This time, the right side
Keselowski’s victory continued Ford’s recent run of dominance on NASCAR’s biggest track.
The Blue Oval has won 11 of the past 14 Talladega Cup races. Nine of those 11 wins have come from Team Penske. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing – May 2017) and Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing – October 2018) chipped in victories as well.
From the perspective of Keselowski’s crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, Ford’s keys to superspeedway success are the drivability of its cars and its driver/spotter tandems.
“The obvious answer when you come to Talladega and Daytona is that your car needs to be fast, but it also needs to handle well,” Bullins said. “I think we’ve done a good job of having a balance of both. I think that showed in the fact we were able to get all the cars towards the front as many times as we did.
“I think the drivers and the spotters put a lot of emphasis in it. (Spotter) Coleman Pressley and Brad have worked so well together. To Brad’s point of learning how to make the moves to get where you need to get at the end of these things, I thought they did a perfect job at the end of putting themselves in a position to where opportunity came about for us to get to the front. They do that by studying these races and understanding what it takes to make those passes at the end.”
The win was also a bounce-back for the No. 2 team after a strategy call from Bullins went awry one week ago on the short track at Richmond Raceway.
During a round of green flag pit stops in Stage 2, Bullins kept Keselowski on the track in an attempt to keep track position and save an extra set of tires for the final stage. But Keselowski fell off the lead lap before the stage ended. He didn’t return to the lead lap until a late wave-around and finished 14th.
Was it redemption for Bullins?
“I kind of laugh,” he said. “When things go wrong like that, you just have to learn from it. Obviously, that didn’t play out like we wanted it to. At the end of the day, there’s 36 of these (races) for a reason. Sometimes you get it wrong and sometimes you get it right.
“…We’ll learn from last week and won’t make that mistake again. It’s just part of it. You’re always going to lose more than you win in this sport. I don’t think there’s been anybody yet that won more than they got wrong. That’s just part of it. It certainly feels good to bounce back this week.”