In a season that has had two surprise first-time winners in its first two race, 23-year-old William Byron broke that streak to score his second career win in the NASCAR Cup Series and his first with crew chief Rudy Fugle, who was Byron’s crew chief in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2016.
Byron started the race 31st after having poor runs at the Daytona oval and road course, but he overcame the starting deficit to win stage 2 and the race, which broke a historic NASCAR record.
“We just thought about executing a good race,” Byron said. “It’s always nice when the speed is there, but I feel like we put in the effort to make sure it was, and it was kind of a flawless weekend really.”
Byron’s win marked the 37th-consecutive season that Hendrick Motorsports won a race in the Cup Series, breaking the former record held by Richard Petty Motorsports at 36 seasons straight.
Byron led 102 of the 267 laps, but for 57 laps, it appeared that a different driver searching for their second career win would prevail: Chris Buescher.
Buescher, who last won at Pocono Raceway in 2016, won stage 1 and led in stage two, but as the race progressed, his car didn’t handle as well.
“I was really happy with the speed we had in the daylight in our Fastenal Ford Mustang,” Buescher said. “Unfortunately ,the night did not do us a whole lot of favors and dirty air was really rough on us there at the end.”
Tyler Reddick, who has finished the last two races in 27th and 38th, had the fastest car at the end of the last green flag run, closing the gap from the leader to himself from over 12 seconds to just under three seconds.
“I just didn’t have a very good last restart,” Reddick said. “We kind of struggled to get our Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevy going, and I had just a poor restart, and it was the difference, unfortunately. That’s all there is to it.”
One more driver who surprised teams with his performance on Sunday night was Michael McDowell who, after winning the Daytona 500 two weeks ago, captured his third-consecutive top-10 finish, extending his personal-best streak of top-10 finishes in his Cup Series career.
The race had 20 lead changes between nine drivers and was run under caution six times for a total of 36 laps.
The NASCAR Cup Series will head west for the next two weeks starting with the Pennzoil 400 Presented by Jiffy Lube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway which is scheduled to air live on Sunday, March 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.
Stage 1 – 80 laps
Joey Logano led the field to the green flag to start the day after Denny Hamlin, who would have been on the pole, had to start at the rear because of an unapproved adjustment made by his team after pre-race inspection. Hamlin moved up 10 spots in the first five laps, and another race favorite, Kyle Larson, moved from 17th to sixth in the first nine laps.
Up at the front, Logano was under fire from Brad Keselowski for the top spot. Logano didn’t put up a fight against his Penske teammate and let Keselowski take the lead on lap 13.
Keselowski led under green until the scheduled competition caution came out on lap 25 and he led the entire field down pit lane under the yellow. Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Logano were the first three drivers off pit road. Larson, who made his way up to fourth before the competition caution, dropped to 10th after a slow pit stop.
The race restarted on lap 32 and Keselowski continued to hold the lead as new competitors began to show up near the front. William Byron, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Chris Buescher were all now running in the top 10 and closing in on the top five quickly. Lap lap 44, Buescher was second, Byron was third and both drivers were gaining on the leader. By lap 47, Buescher was all over the bumper of Keselowski for the lead.
Finally, on lap 53, Buescher made a divebomb move to the inside of Keselowski and took the lead for himself and immediately began to leave the rest of the field behind.
James Davison had an engine failure with 16 laps left in the stage, bringing the caution out. Drivers came back down pit road to get new tires for the dash to the finish of the stage.
Buescher led the field back to green for the eight-lap-dash to end the stage, but Keselowski took the lead. He drove out to a small lead, but Buescher reeled Keselowski back in and passed him with two laps left. Buescher drove away from Keselowski’s no. 2 Ford again and took the stage one win.
The top-10 finishers in stage 1 were Buescher, Keselowski, Martin Truex, Jr., Byron, Alex Bowman, Larson, Logano, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon.
Stage 2 – 80 laps
Under the stage-end yellow, drivers decided to pit again and Buescher was able to retain his lead, allowing him to lead the field back to the green flag, but Chase Elliott mounted a charge from third and passed Buescher on lap 89, but once again, Buescher didn’t allow his opponent to hold the lead for too long, and he took back four laps later.
Along with Elliott, the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports cars were all coming to the front. Elliott, Larson, Byron and Alex Bowman were running in the top eight. Larson and Bryon passed Elliott to take second and third, respectively, and began to close on Buescher ever-so slowly.
As the run became longer, Elliott faded to seventh and Larson to fourth. Truex, however, was picking up positions, and at the stage’s halfway point, he was just under half-a-second behind Buescher, who had quietly been leading.
Green flag pit stops began on lap 38 of the stage. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. inherited the lead temporarily while other drivers made their pit stops, but Truex cycled back out to the lead after Bubba made his pit stop.
Truex held the lead after pit stops and appeared to have the stage win secured until Corey LaJoie had an engine failure with six laps left in the stage, which brought the caution back out.
Drivers elected to pit under the caution for fresh Goodyear tires. Truex remained in first, but Denny Hamlin’s team made quick work of their stop on pit road and got the no. 11 Toyota into second behind their teammate.
The green flag flew for a one-lap dash to the stage finish. Truex led the front-runners, but Hamlin took the lead in turn three. He hadn’t cleared Truex and began to slide up the track, slowing the Joe Gibbs Racing duo and opening the door for William Byron to take the second stage from himself.
In stage 2, the top-10 finishers were Byron, Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Truex, Larson, Buescher, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Brad Keselowski.
Race to the finish – 107 laps
Unlike other cautions, the second stage-end caution only got a few drivers to come down pit road. Truex was the first of the small group to pit, who lined up 17th after pitting from fourth. Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch and Bubba Wallace also pitted under the caution and lined up behind Truex.
William Byron led the field back to the green flag with 100 laps to go in the race. In one lap, Truex drove up to fifth on his new tires and Larson passed Denny Hamlin for second.
Truex was able to pass Hamlin and Larson to take second, but Byron had stretched his lead out to nearly two seconds. That lead, however, was taken away when Aric Almirola made contact with Ryan Blaney. Both cars hit the wall and the incident caused a caution.
During the yellow-flag period, drivers elected to pit yet again. Larson came out of the pits with the lead while Byron fell back to fifth after coming onto pit road with the lead. Hamlin got busted for speeding on pit road and he had to start at the rear of the field.
Larson led the field back to green, but Truex took the lead from Larson for a few laps before Byron passed both of them to resume his time out front. Cole Custer was slicing his way through the top 10 and into the top five. Larson made a pass around Truex for second and Kurt Busch, who had run in the top 10 for so much of the day, had a loose wheel and had to pit with 38 laps to go to change tires.
With 30 laps to go, some drivers began to make strategic moves. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski decided to pit for new tires and fuel in hopes that they could make up time on the leaders. No one else came down pit road.
With 25 to go, Byron had established a healthy 4.5-second lead. Truex and Larson continued to run close together, battling for second as Kevin Harvick moved into fourth and Tyler Reddick moved into fifth. Then Reddick passed Harvick for fourth with 13 to go. Reddick was running faster than the top three and making up ground quickly. As Larson and Truex battled for second and slowed each other down by side-drafting, Reddick closed in.
Reddick made his move past Truex and Larson, but it was too little, too late. Byron still had a four-second gap back to Reddick in second, and with only two laps to go, it was too much of a gap. Byron sailed away to his second career win in the cup series with Reddick in second, Truex third, and Larson fourth.
Featured photo credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images
This story will be updated.