NASCAR Barometer:  William Byron Wins Two In A Row

NASCAR Barometer: William Byron Wins Two In A Row

Kyle Larson might have dominated Sunday's race at Phoenix Raceway with 201 laps led, but it was teammate William Byron that had the goods in the final miles to muscle his way to the front and capture his second race win in a row. The teammates split stage wins en route to the finish, Byron taking the first with Larson capturing the second. However, late in the running Larson lost the edge and was passed by Kevin Harvick for the lead. Two late cautions with one final trip to pit road set up a sprint to the finish between the pair, though. Byron led the final two laps to win as Ryan Blaney inserted himself into the intramural scramble, leaving Larson to slide back to fourth. 

Coming next is a return to the east coast in the form of Atlanta Motor Speedway. The garage will be anxious to be close to home again as they work to close the gap to Hendrick Motorsports. Early championship favorite Chase Elliott may be sidelined, but the organization remains the hottest in the paddock. Byron has two wins from four, and Larson nearly won those two as well. To highlight the situation, Alex Bowman heads the points and is the only driver to have finished in the top 10 in all four races so far this season. The other teams have work to do to catch the trio before they run too far away into the distance, and their first chance comes at Atlanta

Kyle Larson might have dominated Sunday's race at Phoenix Raceway with 201 laps led, but it was teammate William Byron that had the goods in the final miles to muscle his way to the front and capture his second race win in a row. The teammates split stage wins en route to the finish, Byron taking the first with Larson capturing the second. However, late in the running Larson lost the edge and was passed by Kevin Harvick for the lead. Two late cautions with one final trip to pit road set up a sprint to the finish between the pair, though. Byron led the final two laps to win as Ryan Blaney inserted himself into the intramural scramble, leaving Larson to slide back to fourth. 

Coming next is a return to the east coast in the form of Atlanta Motor Speedway. The garage will be anxious to be close to home again as they work to close the gap to Hendrick Motorsports. Early championship favorite Chase Elliott may be sidelined, but the organization remains the hottest in the paddock. Byron has two wins from four, and Larson nearly won those two as well. To highlight the situation, Alex Bowman heads the points and is the only driver to have finished in the top 10 in all four races so far this season. The other teams have work to do to catch the trio before they run too far away into the distance, and their first chance comes at Atlanta where Hendrick drivers swept the victories in 2022.

UPGRADE

William Byron – After winning last week, Byron jumped right back into the lead again Sunday. The No. 24 missed out on the top spot in qualifying but ran away from teammate Kyle Larson in the early laps of the race to pick up right where he left off a week ago by winning the first stage. While Larson dominated the second stage the No. 24 team worked to stay in contention, which paid dividends when the final restarts of the race enabled their driver to make the move for the win. It was the team's second in a row and makes them the first to score multiple victories in 2023. Byron is the defending winner of this coming week's race at Atlanta when he led 111 laps after starting 12th. Byron's quick start to the year puts him in a good light when considering championship favorites.

Kyle Larson - Sunday's race at Phoenix was the second week in a row where Larson came away achingly close to a first 2023 victory. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had a quick car throughout the Phoenix race weekend, qualifying on pole and easing away in the second stage to win the segment. His speed carried through to the final stage until he was passed by Kevin Harvick. A late caution brought a glimmer of hope for the No. 5 to wrestle his way back into the lead, but he was outdone by teammate Byron and was forced to settle for fourth position. It was his second top-five, though, and leaves him seventh in the championship standings. Larson finished in the runner-up position twice at Atlanta and led more than 100 laps in two starts but has never won at the track. His average finish from 10 series starts there is 14.6.

Kevin Harvick – Were it not for late cautions Harvick might have picked up his 10th career Phoenix win last week. The former champion in his final full-time year in the series has had a very respectable start to the season and his pace was on full display Sunday. He was in the lead with a comfortable margin in Sunday's final miles when a caution and final run down pit road upended his chances. The team opted for a four-tire stop when most other contenders only took two. That decision put Harvick further back in the restart order making it an uphill battle to get back to the lead and fifth was as far as he was able to get. While it wasn't the victory he might have enjoyed, it was his second top-five of the season so far. He also added stage points in both segments which leaves him fifth in the championship standings heading to Atlanta.

Ryan Blaney - Blaney grabbed his best result of 2023 with a runner-up finish Sunday at Phoenix. The finish was his second top-10 of the year and first top-10. More importantly to fantasy owners was his potential to win, though. It didn't come as a surprise considering how well he raced in the season finale at the track in 2022, but it did help to shore up any confidence issues he might have for been experiencing in 2023 after back-to-back finishes outside of the top 10. The team has been consistently quick, having started inside the top 10 in every race so far this season. Blaney also showed Sunday that he is going to be a threat for victories again this season and a win might not be too far away, too. This should all give fantasy players plenty of confidence in him as we head to Atlanta where he won in 2021 and finished fifth last time out.

Tyler Reddick – It may have taken a few weeks for Reddick to get situated with his new outfit at 23XI Racing, but the first of what is expected to be many top results came Sunday at Phoenix. Reddick put his No. 45 machine 12th in qualifying but swiftly moved into the top five and kept it there for the rest of the race. He was one of just a few cars to make the decision to take four tires under the late-race caution, but he maintained track position through the final two restarts to be within a shout of the race win and finished third. That was his first top-10 with the new team and a signal of what may be yet to come this season as he and team gain more familiarity. There is no doubt that Reddick has the goods to be a championship contender, and the only question remaining is whether or not he can do it with 23XI. That answer may have been answered in Phoenix.

DOWNGRADE

Aric Almirola – Contact with the wall and a broken wheel extended Almirola's run of misfortune to start the 2023 season. The incident was the first and only unscheduled caution period in the race's first two stages. Despite the incident, he was able to continue on and finished the afternoon four laps down in 33rd position. However, that was the fourth consecutive race he failed to finish in the top 15 and third worse than 20th. The year looked promising with a Daytona qualifying race victory but has turned south since then. His best result thus far remains his 16th-place finish two weeks ago at Las Vegas and he'll be looking at this week's race at Atlanta as a chance to right the ship. Atlanta's reprofiling should play to Almirola's strengths as a driver as evidenced by his eighth-place finish there last fall.

Harrison Burton – A late spin Sunday afternoon left Burton with his third finish outside of the top 20 in the first four races of the 2023 season. While 2022 was a difficult first season in the Cup Series for Burton, progress was evident by the end of the year. Hopes were high that promise would pay off in 2023, but as of yet the potential remains unrealized. After four races Burton has a best finish of 15th from California and he sits 30th in the standings. Issues like Sunday's spin and resulting damage from a destroyed tire continue to cost him and the team dearly. There was little attrition and few cautions in Sunday's race, and that problem left him in 35th position for the day. While the potential is still there, Burton and team still need to get to the finish each week. Potential exists again this week at Atlanta after he finished ninth in the fall race last season but risk remains for fantasy players.

Ty Gibbs – Bad luck late in Sunday's visit to Phoenix caught Gibbs in its crosshairs. A late-race stack up left Gibbs to drive into the back of another car and leaving his No. 54 machine with heavy front-end damage. With no stage points and little attrition the hit to Gibbs was hard. After winning so quickly in every step of the ladder on his way to the Cup Series it remains to be seen how quickly Gibbs would get off the line as a full-time competitor. The 2022 Xfinity Series champion got plenty of series experience last season filling in for injured Kurt Busch, but 2023 would be his first with his namesake team. So far he hasn't cracked the top 15. The season is just a handful of races old, though. Gibbs will need time to adapt to the significant step up in competition and Sunday's pain is part of that process. Fantasy players should remain cautious with him until Gibbs climbs that learning curve.

Austin Cindric – After a top-10 at Las Vegas Cindric fell back down the order again Sunday in Phoenix. The Penske Racing driver has struggled hitting the mark so far in 2023 after winning the first race out of the gate last season. At Phoenix he qualified a lowly 20th and slipped back to finish 25th at the end of the day. After progress the second half of 2022 some momentum seems to have been lost as 2023 gets underway. The top-10 two weeks ago at Las Vegas is a sign of hope that the team can extract some better results as the schedule heads back east, though. Atlanta could be a good barometer of where Cindric and the team sit, too. Cindric is an excellent racer on superspeedways and Atlanta could be a spot where he can gain some lost momentum back. He finished third there last fall and led seven laps.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin –  The rivalry between Chastain and Hamlin boiled over in 2022 and ignited again last week at Phoenix. Both drivers spent time in the top 10 throughout Sunday's event until the final laps when the pair got together while racing in the pack. Instead of consolidating those top-10s, or even racing for top-fives, the pair dropped through the field in the final laps to finish outside of the top 20 after colliding. This is a feud that does not seem to have an end in sight, which is risky for fantasy players. As long as Hamlin and Chastain's cars are near one another on track, which will be often considering how frequently both are near the front, everyone will be holding their breath. Both continue to be top options for top-10 finishes, but the bad blood between them runs the risk of ruining many more of both drivers' days.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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