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.

12 Questions with Jimmie Johnson

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports, who heads to Dover this week looking for a 12th win at the Monster Mile.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I think the majority of it has come from working at it. When I look at my early years of being on motorcycles and early years of four wheels and so on, I’ve been a slow learner to a certain degree, and I really had to focus and work hard to polish up that last bit to make me a champion. So I’d say I put it at 50/50.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

If I haven’t won them over yet, I don’t think I’m going to. (Laughs) Just stay in the sport, stay a fan of somebody — and if you’re booing me, just boo louder; if you’re cheering for me, cheer louder.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I would just say managing it all. It’s so tough to manage a personal life and professional life, and the kids are growing and have interests of their own. My wife has her own small business. So to balance it all really is the tough part as life goes on.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, absolutely. If I’m eating, let me finish my food, that would be really nice — but after that, go for it.

As long as it’s not mid-bite, maybe?

Mid-bite is very awkward and makes for a bad photo. (Laughs)

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

The unsung heroes behind the scenes. It’s something that we have a great privilege to experience working week-in and week-out. You might not know a person’s name, you know the team they’re on, the face, they’re always cheery, happy-go-lucky, there for you. There’s more of those unsung hero experiences I think than people would ever realize.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Matt Kenseth.

Bike-ride related?

Basically. So he decided to run a half marathon at the end of the year, and he wanted to run some miles this morning. I haven’t run in a long time, so I’m like, “Sure, I’ll go with you.”

So you’ve pretty much been biking instead of running recently?

Yes, and then I re-discovered my hatred for running this morning. It’s very effective and I was good at it at one point in time, if I can get back there, but cycling is definitely where it’s at for me.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

By definition, yes — but by my own experience, no. I feel like what we do in the car is absolutely a form of entertainment, but as society has grown and as the spotlight has grown, I find that there is a great pressure to have a personality that fits the masses or do things that will help you in other ways outside of the car and entertaining people, being a big personality.

To me, I’ve always been a bit more on the quiet side, so certainly I’ve had my challenges with all that. But a guy like Clint Bowyer can come along and light up a room, light up an autograph session, whatever it might be, and then he gets in the car and wheels it, too.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

It’s changed a lot over the years. It’s been everything from, “Hey buddy, how are ya?” to what you intended it to mean. I’ve calmed way down with it, and I don’t know the last time I used it, to be quite honest.

Do you ever get it done to you?

Yeah, and as a guy who has passed them out, sometimes I laugh, sometimes I get mad, but I have run across a few who’ve been really upset with the middle finger over the years.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, that stuff is in your mind. It usually comes back around in that particular race. And then if there’s enough consistency with working with one another on track, you’ll remember that and cut somebody a break.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’ve had lunch with President Obama. That’s a good one.

That’s tough to beat right there, a president.

That wasn’t bad at all.

Do you remember what you ate for lunch?

I don’t. We were in a small room, and I don’t think he technically sat down and ate with us, but he was there. So maybe that doesn’t qualify. But we were deep down inside the White House in some room stashed away in a corner with the team. That was really cool.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

There’s plenty of things to improve on. Generally speaking, I just find the older I get, managing emotions and being more patient has served me. Getting started, I had older mentors always tell me, “Be patient, be patient,” and it got under my skin and made me mad. But now as I’m in that role, I can see the benefits that come with it and I find myself preaching it to the young guys that are coming along now.

12. The last interview I did was with Scott Dixon.  His question was: What kind of underwear do you wear? Is it boxers, briefs or tighty-whities?

(Laughs) Thank you, Dix. Appreciate it, buddy.

It depends on the attire and time of day. Evening, going to bed, I’ll go with boxers. And then jeans and pants in general seem to be more slim-fitting these days, so the tighty-whities definitely come into play then.

This room just got really uncomfortable for me.

And me. (Laughs) Thanks, Dixon!

The next interview is with Chase Briscoe. Do you have a question I can ask him?

Let’s just keep the theme going. Boxers or briefs? (Laughs) Thank you, Scott!

Thanks to Dover International Speedway for sponsoring the 12 Questions over the last few months. If you haven’t bought tickets for this weekend’s race yet, please use my link so they won’t think they wasted money by advertising on my website. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

News Analysis: Chase Elliott docked 15 points, Alan Gustafson suspended for spoiler modification

What happened: Chase Elliott was penalized 15 points and crew chief Alan Gustafson and car chief Joshua Kirk were suspended for one race apiece — plus a $25,000 fine for Gustafson — after NASCAR ruled the No. 24 team illegally modified the spoiler at Chicagoland using tape. In addition, the race was ruled to be an encumbered finish — meaning Elliott will not get credit for the playoff point he earned at Chicago if he makes Round 2.

What it means: On Monday, several teams sent pictures and video around the industry of the No. 24 team appearing to have tape hanging off the spoiler and down the sides of the car. This photo evidence was sent to NASCAR and also ended up on Reddit, where it became public. It’s interesting the teams, who have photographers shooting high-resolution images of every car during the race, became sort of a second set of eyes for NASCAR after studying the pictures (Elliott had passed at-track inspection after the race). This shows if there’s a visible part of the car that is illegally modified, teams themselves are likely to catch it and report to NASCAR and/or the media in order to keep a level playing field for themselves. Ultimately, though, the penalty might not harm Elliott that much; he was a comfortable 33 points inside the cutoff, but now falls from sixth place to eight place — 18 points head of the final playoff spot for Round 2.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. This isn’t very big in the grand scheme of things, but it’s newsworthy in the sense that the NASCAR community — namely the teams, but also Reddit by proxy — sniffed out an act of cheating.

Three questions: Teams privately have said the tape added a significant amount of downforce to the car, but how much of a difference did it really make? Is there any way this could actually cost Elliott in terms of making the next round? What else will the garage be able to find in future weeks by examining the photo evidence each team takes during races?

News Analysis: Kasey Kahne to drive Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 car

What happened: Leavine Family Racing, which currently fields the No. 95 car with Michael McDowell, announced Kasey Kahne will take over as its full-time driver in 2018. Kahne and Hendrick announced last month they would part ways after this year, but Kahne was ultimately able to remain in the Cup Series with another team.

What it means: Though his new home is certainly a downgrade from powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, this is a good move for both Kahne and family-run Leavine (pronounced “leh-VINE”). Kahne is only 37 and has some prime years ahead of him, and this will allow him to race in an environment without the pressure that comes with being part of Hendrick. At the same time, Leavine’s performance has been improving over the years — McDowell has been the best car in the Richard Childress Racing alliance at numerous races this year — and figures to only get better with an 18-time race winner in the seat. In addition, Leavine should be able to build a sponsorship program around a driver whose loyal fan base has continued to support him through several miserable seasons at Hendrick.

News value (scale of 1-10): Five. This move was expected for awhile, so it’s not a surprise. It also involves a team that isn’t well known to many fans, though Kahne’s part of the announcement makes it notable enough to get a decent amount of media coverage.

Three questions: Will lowered expectations actually allow Kahne to improve his results (McDowell’s average finish is only one spot behind Kahne this season)? Why did Leavine remain part of the RCR alliance instead of working a deal with Hendrick? Will McDowell be able to remain in NASCAR in some form?

News Analysis: Hendrick Motorsports changes numbers

What happened: Chase Elliott will switch from No. 24 to his family’s famed No. 9 next season — along with the current No. 24 team — and the current No. 5 team with William Byron will instead become the No. 24 team. The No. 5 will not be used by Hendrick next season, though team owner Rick Hendrick said in a news release he would not rule out its return at some point in the future.

What it means: Bill Elliott used the No. 9 for a large part of his career and son Chase followed suit as he rose through the ranks, so this is a dream come true for the Elliott family. Meanwhile, Byron now will enter the Cup ranks with higher expectations on his shoulders. Even though it’s just a number switch — and Byron will be with what is now the No. 5 team, which has underperformed — the prospect of Byron in Jeff Gordon’s car number is significant. Longtime Elliott fans may be on board with the move, but newer Elliott fans — many of whom had warmed to the driver because he was Gordon’s successor in the 24 — may be wondering what to do now.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Even though it’s just a number change, it’s a pretty big deal to have a new driver in the famous No. 24 car, see the No. 9 return with an Elliott driving it and watch the cursed No. 5 car disappear — all in one announcement.

Three questions: Will Gordon fans who started backing Elliott because he was in the No. 24 follow the driver to the No. 9, or will they root for Byron and stay with the number? Will the No. 9 team be able to shake whatever bad luck comes with being the “fourth” number at Hendrick (No. 5, No. 25)? What is our obsession with car numbers in NASCAR and why does it seem bigger than jersey numbers in other sports?

12 Questions with Chase Elliott

The series of 12 Questions interviews continues this week with Chase Elliott of Hendrick Motorsports, who is seventh in the NASCAR Cup Series standings entering the final two races of the regular season.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I feel like for me at least, a lot of it’s been probably from working at it, or at least having smart enough people around me to help me work through the different things that I’ve struggled with over the years. So I would probably attest it more to the knowledge of the people around me and their expertise in racing, or just dealing with people in general more so than anything, I feel like.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I’ve had this question a few times and I don’t really know that there’s a right or wrong answer. But in my opinion, whatever people can find a genuine relationship with in a driver, whatever that is — if it’s a passion that they share with the driver or a thing they like about that driver, the driver’s attitude, the way they race, whatever it is — as long as they can make that connection with them and be genuine and not pull for somebody because somebody told them to, then whoever it is — if it’s me or somebody else, I’m good with that. It’s everybody’s right and decision to pick their driver and pull for them. If it’s me, great; if it’s not, then I get it, too.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I’d say just managing our time. There’s just so many ways you can go about your week and different places we have to be. For us, we have meetings on Tuesdays, so a lot of times your week can be very broken up from traveling on Sundays, getting home on Sunday night, having Monday at home, Tuesday meeting day, Wednesday off, Thursday travel day. So not a lot of consecutive days in one place. I think just managing the time you do have in different places to try and make the most of the time you have off is pretty important.

As you know, we have a long schedule, and not getting too drowned in it throughout the entire year can be important to us. For us, we do it every week; it’s not just a region that we live in and can go to a couple of races a year, so we have to be very mindful of our schedule and try to keep it equal throughout the year.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

That’s a good question. If you’re eating, I’d say definitely not. I wouldn’t want to come bother them while they were eating dinner. I think there’s a right and wrong way to do that; it’s definitely further appreciated when someone will take some extra time — if they have the time — to wait until you’re done eating or at least wait until you’re walking outside or whatever. That will certainly be appreciated.

We try to get to everyone we can. Obviously we can’t get to everyone all the time. But when that does happen, I think just be aware of the conversation. We’re probably with friends or family, and that’s time away from the track and away from things. So any kind of respect as far as waiting and hanging out will be appreciated.

So you don’t mind an autograph as long as you’re not shoveling food at the moment. If you get up to leave, then you’ll do it?

Absolutely. I’m fine with it, it’s not a problem at all. But definitely it is the respect of when you’re eating or when you’re spending time with the people you’re with. That’s where, sometimes, it can be frustrating.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I would say the playoff bonus points that have been going on throughout the years. It’s kind of something that the TV didn’t really talk about a whole lot until, I feel like, halfway through the season, and to me that’s what’s gonna make up the majority of our playoffs, and the guys who have won stages, won races and have racked up all these points.

I mean, we’ve got guys who’ve got in the high 30s of points, and that will just about carry them all the way to Homestead, if you know what I mean. Someone has a race advantage on you starting each round? That’s huge, and I don’t think we’ve emphasized that enough. Or at least I haven’t seen it. Maybe somebody has. But that’s a big story and one that’s gonna shape our playoffs.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Ryan Blaney.

Talking about your trip to Europe (which they are currently on)?

Well, yeah, a little bit about our trip. We were discussing that.

But we were hanging out here (at Bristol) last night, we were wondering what all the people were doing walking. We didn’t realize the hauler parade was going on last night, so we were wondering what was going on.

We got in a golf cart, rode around. We were trying to find a group in the campgrounds that was playing cornhole. We wanted to go play cornhole, so we were trying to find a happening spot that was having a good time so we could join in. But we didn’t find anybody because there were all down here watching the hauler parade.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

No, I don’t think so. I don’t really see us as that. I think our personalities and the differences of opinions in personality might be entertaining, but I can’t say that we’re entertainers.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I tell you, when something really didn’t really go the way you thought it should go or somebody’s not racing you correctly or the way you feel like you should be raced, it can be frustrating. I think that’s where it comes from. My policy on it is it’s probably better to not (use it) in general. Just doing nothing is probably the best thing, that’s probably gonna frustrate people the most. But at the end of the day, there’s gonna be times where you have to do something and those are just those frustrating days. So yeah, it’s been done.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

I definitely do, 100 percent. Racing is something that always comes full circle. There’s times if somebody helps you on early on in the race and you have the chance to do the same for them and it makes sense, then sure.

I think there comes a time in the race where those breaks and the slack are a little more forgiving at the beginning of the day versus what you can do at the end. We all understand that we’ve got to race and it’s hard to be as forgiving toward the end of the races because you’ve trying to fight for what you have. But if you’ve got a guy and they’re way better than you and it’s early on in the race, you’re doing nothing but holding both of you up.

In a lot of ways it seems dumb to let a guy go, but what could potentially happen is you’re slowing him down, the guys behind you are also catching you, so instead of falling behind and trying to make some lap times you might just get freight-trained when the next group catches you. It’s something that we’re all kind of conscious about as the race goes on, so I definitely pay attention to that and try to race guys how they race me.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I can’t think of anybody outside the racing world. I mean, other than drivers, unfortunately I’m not cool enough to have dinner with entertainers or anything. So I don’t know of anybody.

No Eric Church?

Nah, no Eric Church. I hung out at dinner with a couple other performers, Chase Rice being one of them. He’s a super cool guy and great entertainer. But aside from the country music world or racing, I don’t know. I’m not sure on that one.

Well you have a high ceiling to improve on that.

Alright, fair enough.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

A lot of things. I think just, as far as racing stuff goes, I think as time goes on you want to try and take that next step and put yourself in that next caliber of drivers and not so much stay in one place long enough where you get labeled as that. So for me, I want to improve results, improve our qualifying efforts and really just improve our entire weekend.

I want to be, and I want our team to be, someone who people pay attention to. I don’t want to pay attention to them, I want them to pay attention to us and what we’re doing and us be a factor for them every single weekend. That’s probably the biggest thing I want to improve on, and I think it takes a lot of different things to make that particular thing happen. But I think that’s the ultimate goal.

12. The last interview I did was with Brett Moffitt. His question was: Whiskey or beer?

I was on a beer train for a little while, but I’ve kind of re-swapped over to the whiskey. So I’d say whiskey right now.

The next interview is with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Do you have a question I can ask Ricky?

Is he part of the golf (group), those guys?

I’m pretty sure he’s in the Golf Guys Tour, yeah.

So I wanna know how his golf game is, and if he plans on winning their championship or not.

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, and The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.