By Zack Albert
4 Minute Read
LAS VEGAS — William Byron did something this weekend he says he doesn’t normally do. His habit of texting with team owner Rick Hendrick, he explained, is usually limited to his boss texting first unless the two were discussing non-racing matters.
But by Saturday, Byron felt especially confident in what his No. 24 Chevrolet had for the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series field in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube — a feeling reinforced by a front-row starting spot in qualifying and a perch atop the 10-lap averages chart in the practice session that preceded it. Hendrick Motorsports had been left reeling by the absence of Chase Elliott to a snowboarding injury just a day earlier, and Byron wanted to give his car owner a pick-me-up.
So, Byron broke his usual routine and texted first. It turned out to be prophetic assurance.
Byron rolled to a dominant first victory of the season Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading a 1-2-3 sweep by Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets. He set the pace for 176 of the 271 laps in a sweep of the stage wins and led teammates Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman to the checkered flag in overtime.
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Elliott was missing from the 36-car field after undergoing surgery on a fractured left leg just two days earlier. Xfinity Series regular Josh Berry filled in with the No. 9 Chevy team and battled through a throttle issue to finish 29th in his first race with the Next Gen car.
The organization was missing a key part of its regular four-part driver harmony, but found a level of perseverance that dominated the Vegas scoreboard.
“I think just shows the strength that our teams have and the ability to come together in tough situations,” Byron said after recording the fifth Cup Series victory of his career. “I think I speak for everyone in the fact that we miss Chase out here. He’s a big contributor to feedback and our debriefs and he’s a great race car driver — has a lot to offer there. I think there was a void there, but I think we were able to fill it with just kind of coming together as a team, and having Josh come on board, he’s obviously a great race car driver, too, and I know him from the past.
“Yeah, it was an important day. I felt that for sure. I texted Mr. H. after practice and felt really good about the car and just wanted to reassure him that we’re going to go out there and try to win for him because it was a tough week. Yeah, just shows the strength of our team to be able to come together.”
For Jeff Andrews, Hendrick Motorsports president and general manager, Sunday marked his second consecutive trip to the Vegas track’s media center, but a far more comfortable one. His Saturday visit was as the team’s lead representative in providing an update on Elliott’s condition and the still-uncertain timetable of his return to competition.
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Sunday, Andrews noted that the organization had not yet determined an interim driver of the No. 9 Chevy for next Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 pm. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM). But he also lauded the chemistry of Byron with crew chief Rudy Fugle in their third season together, and the No. 24 team’s resolve after results of 34th (Daytona) and 25th (Auto Club) to start the year.
“Fantastic day for Hendrick Motorsports and the 1-2-3 finish,” Andrews said. “I should say first and foremost obviously our thoughts are with Chase and everything he’s going through right now, and we sure missed him being here at the track with us today. Can only imagine being a young guy like that and what that must have felt like to have to watch that at home. Certainly thinking about him and missing him here today, but really proud of all of our cars and the effort that’s gone into our cars and race teams in the offseason.”
The redoubled effort between last season and this one was a point emphasized post-race by Cliff Daniels, crew chief on Larson’s runner-up No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson nearly took the Las Vegas laurels, thanks to a quicker final-stage pit stop that helped to put him out front for 63 laps, but Byron’s text-worthy power — and later, an improved stop by his team in OT — won out in an overtime sprint to the end.
Elliott’s welcome back to competition is still an undetermined amount of time away, but the rest of the Hendrick bunch seems in position to keep the performance level stoked.
“This winter, I’ll be honest, in my time at Hendrick Motorsports and I’ve been here eight or nine years, the team’s worked as closely together as I’ve ever seen us work, which is great,” Daniels told NASCAR.com. “We just continue to build on that every year, and that’s a testament to you Mr. H., (vice chairman) Jeff Gordon, Jeff Andrews, everybody keeping us all connected back at the shop, and everybody putting in a lot of hard work this winter.
“I’m going to be honest, the best car won today. Yes, we were leading when the last caution came out, but we kind of circled the 24 when they didn’t have the best stop. We had a good stop and a good restart and got the lead. So yeah, I’m certainly disappointed to finish second, but to finish second to a teammate that clearly had the best car, happy for those guys. Rudy and his gang have worked so hard and had so many good cars and just not be able to capitalize, and I feel like today was a really good team win for them.”