It is for this type of weekend coming up at Martinsville Speedway that William Byron ran several Late Model races this year.
While there’s plenty of chances to run laps on a simulator or on iRacing, there’s a value in running actual laps in a race car, even if it is different than the Next Gen car. With limited practice in Cup, the more laps the better, especially for the 24-year-old Byron who didn’t begin competing until a decade ago — years after many of his competitors first started.
Byron heads into this weekend on the verge of making the Cup championship race for the first time. He leads Denny Hamlin by five points for the last transfer spot.
Byron’s experience running Late Model races this season gave him extra chances to work on his race craft, whether it was more time on restarts, managing tires or something else. His success this year — which included winning the Slinger Nationals in Wisconsin in July — also provided extra confidence.
“Super proud of him for stepping out of his comfort zone and pushing his limits,” crew chief Rudy Fugle said in July on MotorMouths on Peacock. “That’s what is huge.
“A lot of guys do that in different ways, but they don’t always do it in front of a crowd. You don’t do it in front of everybody who, if you go up there and miss the show … most people that don’t know how hard it is are going to laugh at you. You have to get past that. He’s done that and it has paid off. He’s a way more complete driver this year and is just going to keep growing.”
Byron heads to Martinsville having won the spring race (and the Camping World Truck Series race that weekend), but he faces a tough competitor in Hamlin, who has five Martinsville victories and 16 top-five finishes in 33 starts there. Byron will be making his 10th Cup start at the historic half-mile track. Hamlin has run nearly 16,000 laps in those Martinsville races compared to Byron, who has run just over 4,200 laps there.
Byron’s spring win at Martinsville was his second of the season, but he hasn’t won in NASCAR since. He has won three Late Model races since. He won in May at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, in June at Berlin Raceway in Michigan and in July’s Slinger Nationals.
“I think it’s learning how to be versatile,” Byron said this summer of the value of racing Late Models. “Winning in different cars is a big boost because you’re not one dimensional.
“Like before this year, I would have probably gone back and ran Late Models earlier if I felt like it was going to go pretty well. But I didn’t think I would be able to take what I do now and move around. Going and doing it this year has definitely bred some confidence to know that I can get in a car and learn.
“I think that’s what it takes on Sunday … that adaptability and being able to have different techniques and make it work.”
But the No. 5 team was still high enough in the owner standings to have a chance at the owner’s title. It’s a credit to how crew chief Cliff Daniels kept the team focused on that goal after the disappointment at the Roval.
“Cliff did a great job with his team and getting them refocused on that,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports.
With Homestead in the Round of 8, it presented the No. 5 team for Hendrick Motorsports a great chance to secure a spot in the owner’s championship race at Phoenix.
When Homestead hosted the Cup title race, the belief of series observers was that if Larson could make it that far, he would be the heavy favorite to win. With the Next Gen car featuring a composite body that can take more contact with the wall, it provided another advantage for Larson, who often runs along the wall there.
“I think (Sunday) honestly it paid off because I finally have a car strong enough for me,” Larson said, alluding to the composite body. “I can get in the wall and it’s not going to flatten your tire or mess up your aerodynamics
“I got in the wall probably three or four times (Sunday) a decent amount to where it would have been, with the old car, probably a pit stop, and I would have killed my race.
“Thankfully this car, I think, played into my favor a lot because I do push the limits more than others. You can see it in the right side of my car. That’s pretty obvious.”
Larson showed his strength, leading 199 of 267 laps and sweeping both stages.
“My car was amazing up against the wall,” he said. “It also has to handle how you want it to.
“It did everything I wanted it to against the wall. The ride quality was great into (Turn) 3. It turned where I needed it to turn on entry so I could carry speed. It turned on exit so I could just stay committed to the throttle. It wasn’t too loose on exit or too tight where I had to bail out of the throttle at all.”
Martin Truex Jr.’s tough luck continued Sunday.
He seemed in position to score his first victory of the season but was spun on pit road and saw his chances of winning end.
Truex was coming down pit road as the leader on Lap 246 of the 267-lap race. With the sun in his eyes, he abruptly slowed as he neared his pit stall and was hit from behind by Kyle Larson. The contact spun Truex into his stall backward. His pit stop lasted more than a minute and cost him any chance of winning.
“It was really hard to see through these windshields right now with the sun like that and all the stuff covering it,” Truex said. “I did see my box late for sure. So I slowed down before I turned down out of the way of (Larson) there. Partially on me.”
Truex finished sixth and added to the times he could have won but didn’t.
At Texas in September, Truex led when he had a tire go down on Lap 268 of the 334 lap race and crashed. He finished 31st.
At Darlington in September, Truex led with less than 35 laps left when he lost power steering and his engine began overheating. He finished 31st.
At New Hampshire in July, Truex led 172 of the first 206 laps. When the caution came out at Lap 206, Truex pitted. He was the first on pit road and first off it after taking two tires. Three cars stayed out. On the restart, Truex was trapped and got shuffled back. He eventually fell back to 11th before coming back to finish fourth in a race he had won both stages and been dominant.
At Nashville in June, Truex was in position to line up next to Chase Elliott on the front row for the final restart when he mistakingly followed his teammates down pit road.
Truex, who was fourth, was told to stay out if he could restart on the front row. With both Busch and Hamlin coming down pit road, that would have given Truex a spot on the front row for the restart, but he also went down pit road. Truex restarted 14th and finished 22nd.