Despite leading a race-high 176 laps, it took a stellar pit stop and a strong restart for William Byron to win the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas.
Through two stages, it looked as if William Byron would cruise to victory in the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas. He won both stages and was out front for nearly the entirety of the race.
Then, at the start of the third stage, pit strategy and a strong restart allowed Byron’s teammate Kyle Larson to take the lead. Entering the closing laps, Larson was poised to steal the victory.
Fortunately, a late-race caution and a stellar pit stop from the #24 crew put Byron in the catbird seat entering overtime. He managed to hold off Larson, Martin Truex Jr., and Alex Bowman on the ensuing restart to win the Pennzoil 400.
1. William Byron’s Las Vegas dominance
Although it took some luck in the end, William Byron deserved to win the Pennzoil 400. He easily took the lead from polesitter Joey Logano on lap nine and had little issues sweeping the stages. It was as dominating a performance as any that has been seen in the Next Gen cars.
The only driver that could somewhat keep pace with Byron was his Hendrick teammate Kyle Larson. The #5 ran second most of the afternoon. When Denny Hamlin chose to only take two tires after a caution in stage three, the door opened for Larson to steal the win. On the next restart, Byron was shuffled back and Larson navigated through traffic to take the lead from Hamlin.
Byron eventually reached second, but it appeared to be too late as Larson had already set sail on the field. As was seen last season, it seemed that Byron would once again come up short despite having the fastest car in the race. However, luck was finally on Byron’s side when a wreck by Aric Almirola forced the race into overtime.
Byron’s pit crew had a lightning-fast pit stop to narrowly get the #24 in front of the #5. On the restart, Byron made quick work of Martin Truex Jr., who did not pit and easily took the checkered flag uncontested. It is the fifth win of Byron’s career and his first since the spring Martinsville race last April.
While many may feel Byron fluked into the win, he and his team earned this victory. They clearly had the fastest car all race long, seen through Byron leading 176 laps. Larson may have had a little more speed in the final stage, but Byron was still slowly eating into the #5’s lead even before the caution came out.
Moving forward, could this be the breakout we have been waiting for out of Byron? Only time will tell. In 2022, he got off to a similarly fast start (two wins in the first eight races) before fading during the summer. He clearly demonstrated at Las Vegas that he has the speed, the pit crew, and the ability to close out races. Still, he will need to have a little more success to prove 2022 is different than 2023.
2. Chevy dominance continues at the Pennzoil 400
Another week, another win for Chevrolet. With Ricky Stenhouse Jr. winning Daytona and Kyle Busch winning at Fontana, William Byron’s victory Sunday continues Chevy’s undefeated start to 2023.
Despite being without Chase Elliott, the other three full-time Hendrick Motorsports drivers were the class of the field at Las Vegas. In addition to Larson and William Byron’s dominant runs, Alex Bowman was in the top five all race and finished third. It is the third time in NASCAR history that Hendrick finished 1-2-3.
Trackhouse continued their strong start to the year as well. Daniel Suarez finished 10th and has yet to finish outside the top ten so far this year. Ross Chastain had a top-five car, but got shuffled back on the restart and finished 12th.
Justin Haley (8th), Kyle Busch (14th), and Corey LaJoie (20th) each also had notable runs for Chevy. In the early part of the season, the Chevy camp appears to be the one to beat in 2023.
3. Toyotas finally show up
The Chevys may have been the class of the field, but the Toyotas showed some speed at Las Vegas as well. This is especially promising considering how invisible the manufacturer was during the first two races of the year.
Three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars were in the top ten for most of the race. Christopher Bell overcame a vibration issue in the third stage to finish fifth. Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin each would have finished inside the top five if not for the late-race caution. Because of the chaos of the final restart, MTJ ended up seventh and Hamlin fell all the way to 11th.
Despite the disappointing finishes, the #19 and the #11 were the only cars capable of keeping up with Hendrick. This should give both teams confidence as the young season moves along.
While JGR was the strongest Toyota team on Sunday, they did not have the highest-finishing Toyota in the field. That honor went to Bubba Wallace of 23XI Racing. Wallace had a strong restart in overtime to finish fourth. He did not have top-five speed but was a staple in the top ten all race long.
Bubba’s teammate Tyler Reddick showed tremendous speed as well. He drove through the field and reached sixth by the final stage, but multiple run-ins with the wall led to him finishing 15th. Considering how awful their first two races were, Las Vegas may have finally gotten 23XI Racing back on track.
4. Where are the Fords?
During the off-season, many believed that Ford would be the manufacturer to beat because of their new body. However, after three weeks, they are still without a win and have lacked any real, race-winning speed. They were in contention at Daytona and Fontana, but there was really no Ford team anywhere near the front Sunday at Las Vegas.
Austin Cindric was the highest finishing Ford in sixth, but he only reached the top ten because he capitalized on the chaos of the final restart. Kevin Harvick was probably the best Ford all day, yet he stayed in the back half of the top ten most of the race and ended up ninth. Ryan Blaney (13th) and Brad Keselowski (17th) showed speed at points in the race as well.
Joey Logano, who started on pole, led the first nine laps before being passed by William Byron relatively easily. Logano proceeded to immediately fall out of the top ten. He ran around 15th for most of the race before he spun out while racing three-wide with Keselowski and Kyle Busch.
There is no reason for Ford teams to panic. It seems like they usually have slow starts before finding their stride during the second half of the season. Still, with all of the optimism heading into the year, it is disappointing that Ford appears to be a decent amount behind the Chevy camp.
5. Josh Berry finishes 29th in relief for Chase Elliott
Josh Berry drove the #9 for Chase Elliott in the Pennzoil 400 and finished 29th. Elliott, NASCAR’s most popular driver and the 2020 Cup champion, broke his tibia in a snowboarding accident on Friday in Colorado. While Elliott did undergo successful surgery on Saturday, he is currently out indefinitely.
If Elliott is able to return in 2023, he may still be able to race for the title this season. Hendrick Motorsports has applied for a medical waiver from NASCAR to allow the #9 in the Playoffs. Similar waivers were granted in recent years to Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. Busch most notably won the championship in 2015 despite breaking his leg in the first Xfinity race of the year at Daytona.
Despite being his third career Cup start, Las Vegas was Berry’s first in the Next Gen car. On the transition to the new car and the shocking news, Berry said:
“I’m going to be learning a new car here in an hour or so, so at least having some success on the track, I think that definitely gives me more confidence in what I’m doing. It’s been a wild couple of days. You never know what will happen when you wake up.”
Although he was a non-factor on Sunday, Berry has been an accomplished driver in the Xfinity Series. He has five wins in 65 career starts, including a fourth-place finish in points in 2022.
It remains to be seen who will pilot the #9 next week at Phoenix. Berry could once again be the option, especially with a race now under his belt.