Las Vegas Testing Day 1: William Byron shows speed

Prior to getting on track Wednesday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, William Byron had never been up to speed in a Cup Series car.

Considering he’s getting ready to drive Hendrick Motorsports’ famed No. 24 car this season, there’s a lot for Byron to learn in a very short amount of time.

But on his first day as a Cup driver, the 20-year-old showed promise almost immediately — and left him hardly able to stop smiling after seven hours of testing.

“Just a lot of nerves showing up at the racetrack today and seeing all the cars and the guys you’re used to watching on TV,” he said. “It’s kind of weird being at a test with them or being on the track with them. But once I got in the car, I just kind of trusted what has gotten me here and what I’ve done to this point.”

Those instincts paid off. Byron was initially about a half-second behind the leaders following his first run, but was the fastest driver in the morning session by the time lunch rolled around. His speed was the second-fastest of the day, with Kyle Larson edging him by .012 second.

“Everyone was telling me not to look at the lap times, because they don’t want me to bust my tail or something,” he said with a chuckle. “But the biggest thing for me was once I knew what my comfort level was, I could push the car more and see the lap time kind of result in that.

“Obviously, it’s just a test. You’re not racing guys. I’m sure I’ve got a ton to learn, especially racing around guys. So I’m sure it’s going to be a difficult task to get used to that, but at least we have the speed.”

Until Wednesday, the only seat time Byron had was to practice with the gears (and in the simulator, of course). But he’d never actually made a lap.

He described the experience as like driving a rocket ship.

“The first time, I was just trying to hold on,” he said. “I think each run, I started to get more and more comfortable. But you still never really get comfortable with the speed of it — it’s tremendous, especially in the mid-corners.”

With Day 1 behind him, Byron knows he can at least get up to speed in a Cup car — and that he’ll likely have fast cars to drive this season.

“The new Camaro is good so far, and I think if we can keep building on that on (Thursday) — not crash it or anything — we can get out of here with some good information,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Day 1 combined top single-lap speeds (I took the driver’s top speed from the morning and afternoon sessions):

Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet) / 188.403 mph

William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) / 188.298

Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet) / 188.186

Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) / 187.846

Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) / 186.722

Brad Keselowski (Team Penske Ford) / 186.574

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing Ford) / 186.245

Kasey Kahne (Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet) / 186.200

Darrell Wallace Jr. (Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet) / 185.970

Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing Ford) / 185.701

Chris Buescher (JTG/Daugherty Racing Chevrolet) / 185.631

Ty Dillon (Germain Racing Chevrolet) / 185.052

Drew Herring (Toyota wheel force car) / 184.887 *

Cole Custer (GoFas Racing Ford) / 184.225

Justin Allgaier (Chevrolet wheel force car) / 182.760 *

David Ragan (Ford wheel force car) / 181.971 *

* — Wheel force cars are used by manufacturers to gain additional information through advanced telemetry equipment and have a primary objective of gathering data.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. Didn’t see that coming

It’s not like Kevin Harvick was an upset winner at Texas, but his victory Sunday was definitely a surprise.

Did you expect him to win? I didn’t.

First of all, Harvick had never gone to victory lane at Texas. So there’s that.

But who would have legitimately picked Harvick to win at a 1.5-mile track when those races have been completely dominated by Martin Truex Jr. lately? It’s not like Harvick or his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates had a bunch of wins since moving to Ford, either; the only victories for SHR this season had been Harvick’s road course win at Sonoma and Kurt Busch’s restrictor-plate win in the Daytona 500.

So when Harvick tracked down Truex and passed him like it was nothing? Wow! That was both a show of power and an unexpected outcome — although crew chief Rodney Childers noted the team has been bringing more speed over the last month.

“I feel like we should have won more races this year,” Childers said. “It’s disappointing. I don’t like to lose. It’s been a hard year. So to finally get one back into victory lane, to feel like we have something we can race with the last four or five weeks, (that) has been impressive to me.”

Maybe everyone wasn’t paying enough attention as the No. 4 team crept back toward winning again. Guilty as charged here.

But either way, Harvick and Childers have served notice they’re back and are capable of winning another title.

After all, you never want to let the hard-nosed Harvick get a whiff of potential victory if you’re one of his competitors.

2. Truex vulnerable?

Almost immediately after the race, Martin Truex Jr. — unprompted — tried to get in front of the potential storyline that his team had somehow lost momentum by finally failing to win a 1.5-mile track race.

“People are going to say, ‘Well, I think the balance of power (has shifted)’ and ‘Did Harvick steal our confidence by beating us at the end?'” he said. “All that Voodoo stuff I’m sure will be brought up.

“The bottom line is our last run we weren’t as good as we needed to be. We got beat, but we still did what we needed to do. … To think we came up eight laps short…is pretty good.”

It’s true Truex has been dominant on 1.5-milers (he’d won four in a row and six overall this season), but his playoffs have been a bit odd compared to the regular season. Where Truex won 18 stages in 26 regular-season races, he’s won just one stage in the eight playoff races.

That’s a bit misleading considering he has three wins in the playoffs, but it still could be a sign the team isn’t unloading as fast off the truck as it was earlier in the year.

Yes, Truex will still be the favorite going into Homestead no matter what. But Harvick tracking him down and passing him late in a playoff race on a 1.5-miler shows the 78 team is certainly beatable in the right circumstances.

3. Last One In

In theory, there are five drivers fighting for one spot at Phoenix. Personally, I think it’s more like two.

Brad Keselowski currently holds the final playoff spot by 19 points over Denny Hamlin. I think the race will come down to those two.

Sure, Ryan Blaney is within range — he’s only 22 points behind Keselowski. But although the Wood Brothers Racing driver has two top-10s in three Phoenix starts, I don’t see him outrunning the other two drivers by enough points to make it.

Then there’s Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, but it’s hard to imagine either of them winning outright — which will be a must next week.

So the battle is likely between Keselowski and Hamlin. And even though he’s behind, I’ll give the edge to Hamlin.

Here’s why: If you recall, Toyota drivers dominated the two New Hampshire races this summer — those drivers led 589 of 601 laps at NHMS this year — and that track is a 1-mile flat oval that is the most similar to Phoenix.

With stage points playing such a factor in the standings these days, I can envision Hamlin running in the top three and chipping away at Keselowski’s lead before the halfway point — then outrunning him in better equipment at the finish.

Nothing against Keselowski, but it just seems like the better bet is the team that has consistently shown more speed.

4. The Levy Was Dry

Barring a Johnson or Elliott victory at Phoenix, Chevrolet is headed toward being shut out from Homestead for the first time in the existence of the new format.

Chevy had two entries among the final four the first two years of the championship race, then had one entry last year. Toyota has had at least one driver every season — and will now have at least two for the second straight year — and Ford missed 2015 but had one in the other two seasons.

Even though we know Hendrick Motorsports has been down this season, it’s still jarring to think of no Chevrolets running for the title — especially since many people viewed Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson as a lock to make it.

A lot of people are banking on the new Camaro changing Chevrolet’s fortunes next year, but I’m not sure it will be that simple.

 

5. Daydreaming

Hey, remember last week at Martinsville when the race was totally awesome and featured thrilling battles for the entire 3.5-hour event?

And remember how energized everyone seemed after so much excitement and drama that showcased the best of what this playoff format has to offer?

And remember how the race was so good that we talked about it for the like whole week?

Yeah.

Me too.