Three cars in Saturday’s practice sessions were at least 1.5 seconds off the pace, meaning the leaders should reach them — and start lapping them — within the first 20 laps on Sunday in Phoenix.
It certainly won’t be the only time those cars are lapped, as drivers were reminded again last week at Las Vegas. Reed Sorenson, driving for Spire Motorsports, finished 15 laps down. Cody Shane Ware, driving for Rick Ware Racing, was 14 laps down.
Both cars were running at the finish and were not involved in any incidents, meaning they simply had much slower cars than most of the field.
Sunday’s race will see more of the same, except on a smaller, narrower track than Vegas. The cars of Ware, RWR teammate Bayley Currey and Quin Houff (Spire) all look slow — with Currey and Houff making their first career Cup starts.
Lapped cars have caused some frustration that has bubbled up in different ways for contending drivers of late, and Phoenix might only increase that sentiment.
“Have you been listening to our radios the last couple weeks?” Aric Almirola joked.
First and foremost, drivers say they simply want lapped cars to be respectful and get out of the way — a command the flagman expresses at tracks all over the country via the “move over” flag.
NASCAR has a move over flag, but Almirola noted it’s not even necessary because the lapped cars all have spotters.
“You have a spotter telling you, ‘Hey, the leaders are catching you again and the guy that’s catching you has been running the bottom the last five laps.’ (So) give him that lane,” Almirola said. “I realize they’re here with just as much equal right to the racetrack, but it’s just a common courtesy…and those guys are multiple, multiple laps down and not really going to change their position one way or the other.”
William Byron said lapped cars need to look in their mirrors and see where the faster cars are running — “just like driving on the highway,” he said.
“Honestly, it’s not just enough to say ‘Run the bottom every time’ because I might be running the top at a certain racetrack, and if you come up and block that, you’re completely killing the run,” he said. “You’ve got to constantly adapt. … But you’ve got to be predictable.”
One problem is how the slower cars get out of the way is up for debate. Though Almirola and Byron want the lapped cars to be aware of the faster cars’ preference for top or bottom groove, Denny Hamlin said that could cause other issues.
“As long as a lapped car, especially one that is off the pace, decides that, ‘OK, everyone is going run below me,’ I think that’s fine,” Hamlin said. “It’s when you get the ones that actually have great intentions of letting (someone go by saying) ‘OK, this guy has been running here, I’ll let him have the bottom’ and ‘This guy has been running the top, let me move down’ – that’s where things kind of get bad.
“It ends up being a moving target and you don’t really know where they are. As long as they pick one side or the other and they want to let the field go, it’s good.”
Ryan Newman said he doesn’t care where the lapped cars go — as long as they get out of the way. But he also noted drivers in every form of racing have to deal with slower cars.
“At some point you’re going to be in the way and you just hope it doesn’t adversely affect somebody else’s race, but in the end, that’s part of it,” he said. “… Everybody has to work around those cars, whether it’s the first, second, third or 20th-place car. So how you use them or how they affect your race is a part of racing.”
But Alex Bowman said he takes a different view, having driven a slower car in the past during his days at Tommy Baldwin Racing. Bowman said he was “way more stressed out doing that stuff than I am today (driving for Hendrick Motorsports)” because drivers in the back are trying to balance staying out of the way with trying to get the best finish possible.
“Really all you can ask is for a guy to do the same thing every time so you at least know what to expect when you get there and do the same thing for everybody,” Bowman said. “Their job is honestly, technically, probably harder than our job. The race car is driving worse, so I don’t really think they get enough credit. They get talked crap about and kind of put down sometimes in situations that it’s really not completely their fault.”
The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports. These interviews are recorded as a podcast but also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
1. Are you an iPhone person or an Android person, and why?
I’m an iPhone person. I don’t think I’ve ever had an Android. I feel like it’s such an off-brand version of an iPhone; I just don’t think that’s very good. I think they’re slower. I guess there’s some benefits. But I’ve always had an iPhone.
2. If a fan meets you in the garage, they might only have a brief moment with you. So between an autograph, a selfie or quick comment, what is your advice on the best way to maximize that interaction?
I feel like autographs are so generic. Either a picture or just (commenting on) a neat little tidbit about what you’re doing — something that shows they know about what’s going on. I feel like when I was a kid and I came to races, the only way I was really going to connect to a driver was if I knew some fact about them or knew what was going on with their weekend. So I think that’s important to a driver.
So you’d say something like, “Hey, I noticed you were whatever in practice yesterday,” when you see a driver?
Yeah, if you know more about the sport or what’s going on, I think that’s going to connect with somebody, personally, instead of just, “Hey!” Sometimes you hear things like, “Oh, that’s Alex — oh, no, that’s William.” And that’s like, “OK, you’re just looking for an autograph.” But the kids that you see and meet that are in tune with the sport, those are the ones I connect with.
3. When someone pulls a jerk move on the road when you’re driving down the highway, does that feeling compare at all to when someone pulls a jerk move on the track?
It does. I think on the track, there’s like a survival instinct that comes into play — so even if there is something that kind of frustrates you or pisses you off, it doesn’t really stick with you. Because I’m trying to survive and get to the next thing. I don’t think it’s going to be beneficial for me to get hung up on that — unless it really did hurt me or really screw me over in that situation.
On the road, especially me, I’m just taking advantage of bad drivers — and it does get frustrating when there’s somebody in your way.
4. Has there ever been a time where you’ve had a sketchy situation with your safety equipment?
Not a whole lot. I’d say when I ran Legend cars, the closest thing I had to that was just going out with your HANS clips not clipped in. You start to get into the routine of having those clipped in and you see a lot of drivers do this (shakes head) to make sure. But yeah, it’s sketchy. I mean, there was one time I did that and came back in and I was a little bit caught off guard that I went out there without those.
5. If your crew chief put a super secret illegal part on your car that made it way faster, would you want to know about it?
Not really. I want to know they’re doing everything it takes to make it go as fast as possible, and I trust what they put on the cars. So I think trust is a big thing with your crew chief or your team, knowing that the car they’re giving you is something fast and competitive. I wouldn’t really care unless it comes to like, “Hey, you know, we gotta crash something to…” (Laughs) Who knows? But no, I don’t really care.
6. What is a food you would not recommend eating right before a race and are you speaking with personal experience with this recommendation?
As sick as I’ve gotten over the offseason with food poisoning a couple times, I would say sushi. I would not eat sushi. Even though I love it, but you just never know.
So you’re kind of staying away after some bad experiences?
Yeah, staying away from that for sure.
7. Is there life in outer space, and if so, do they race?
I don’t think so, because they can’t keep the cars on the ground with (no) gravity. Maybe you could, but I don’t know if being loose or tight would be the same for them. Honestly, I think it would be cool. I feel that they’d race, if you’re a Star Wars fan, you know they race those little things that are about a couple hundred feet off the ground, so those would be fun to race.
Like those pod things?
Yeah, I love those.
8. What do drivers talk about when they’re standing around at driver intros before a race?
Nothing useful. Nothing. I hate that time, honestly. I don’t feel like it really suits my style of talking to somebody right before I go try to beat them. But I try to make off-subject comments like, “How was your offseason? How is your family?” Something like that. It’s a really useless time.
So it’s totally awkward small talk?
Oh yeah. It’s a maintenance conversation that you’re trying to have with somebody that is really not your best friend. Maybe it’s different for other people.
9. What makes you happy right now?
Good question. Honestly, just racing. I mean, that’s a very broad thing, but I guess just competing and being happy with that. I’m not super linked to friendships or things like that yet, but just racing and being in my own space, being able to accomplish things that I’m really just trying to strive for by myself.
10. Let’s say a sponsor comes to you and says, “We are going to fully fund the entire rest of your racing career on the condition that you wear a clown nose and an 80’s rocker wig in every interview you do forever.” Would you accept that offer?
No, because that’s out of style. It’s gonna kill my vibe too much with people my age.
People your age are not going to think that’s the William Byron brand.
That’s not gonna be cool. I probably wouldn’t do that.
11. This is the 10th year of the 12 Questions. There has never been a repeat question until now. Pick a number between 1 and 100, and I’m going to pull up a random question from a past year’s series.
I’ll pick 24.
This question was “Who will win the Cup title five years from now?” So this would be for 2024. Who wins?
Uh, me. Yeah. (Laughs)
That makes sense. You’ll still be around, you’ll still be young.
I hope I’m still around. If I don’t have a job, that would be really sad. I don’t know what I would be doing. Hopefully racing.
12. The last interview was with Aric Almirola. He wants to know with all the pressure that’s around you to be the next guy at Hendrick and all this hype that comes with you, what do you do in your daily life or your time away from the track to get away from all that and have fun?
That’s a great question. You know, I snowboard during the offseason. My friends at school are completely normal kids. I really don’t get asked a lot about racing outside of racing when I’m with my other friends, so I feel like that’s a great way to disconnect.
And honestly I feel like I’m living something that I never expected to do, so that’s fun for me. I know that ultimately, I’m not attached to this by my family or anything, and that’s a really cool disconnection I have from racing. So my family’s not going to judge me on whether I succeed or fail on the racetrack. They care, but they don’t care for the sake of my life goals. So I think I’m kind of living that lack of pressure from a family perspective.
Do you have a question I can ask another driver?
If you could change the schedule one way, how much time you would spend around the racetrack? Like what do you think is the ideal schedule each week? Two days?
So the weekend schedule?
Yes. It is a one-day show? Show up, have one practice? How do you think we should do that?
Previous 12 Questions interviews with William Byron:
The 12 Questions series of driver interviews continues this week with William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports, who is currently leading the Rookie of the Year standings.
1. How often do you have dreams about racing?
Gosh, I hope most of the time not during the week because I try to get my mind away from it a little bit. But I’d say when I’m at the racetrack, I have nightmares about forgetting something or being late or sleeping in.
2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?
Yeah, I think so — especially in my position as a rookie. When you’re an older guy, maybe you’re more set in your ways. But when you’re a rookie, you don’t want to have enemies out there. I think it’s important just to clear the air.
I can’t say I’ve had anybody call me and apologize, so I usually just remember that stuff. But I try to reach out.
3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?
I’d say “you’re talented,” but moreso that “you work hard and prepare.” That you don’t show up and act like you don’t know what you’re doing. The preparation you have, just giving your maximum effort. Preparation is all that put together.
I played other sports, and it was always important for me to be the kid who hustled the most.
So that’s always been part of your makeup, even before racing?
It’s always been what I tried to do. I played football — which is ironic, because I wasn’t a big guy — but I hustled a lot and was actually able to start. I think the hustle part of it is something that carried over into racing.
What position did you play?
Linebacker, actually. I like to hit people.
4. NASCAR comes to you and says they’re bringing a celebrity to the track and they want you to host them. Who is a celebrity you’d be excited to host?
I would say any of the Panthers players. Luke Kuechly. Greg Olsen would be really cool — he’s come to some races. I feel like those guys are close to home for me.
As a side note — which is not good as a Panthers fan — but Tom Brady is really cool. He likes cars, which I’ve noticed, so maybe we could get him out to a race sometime soon.
5. In an effort to show this is a health conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the No. 1 pit stall for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?
No. Absolutely not. I eat the worst probably of anyone in here. Just because I’m so young, it doesn’t really affect me that much. I haven’t reached the point where it even stays on me. I burn everything off instantly, so I probably eat ice cream four times a week. I have no shame in that. I wouldn’t change my diet. A lot of my happiness is how much ice cream I get.
6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from your career and you have to tell me where you finished. This is the 2016 Bristol Truck race. Do you happen to remember that one at all?
Yeah. I think I took the lead with 30 to go and I broke a shock, and I think I finished fourth.
Yes, you finished fourth. Ben Kennedy won. I think you led one lap.
I led and made a mistake and got passed. Not fun.
Are you good at remembering races?
Yeah. I don’t have many. As a race car driver, I forget anything else people tell me. But the things in the race car, I always remember. Especially when you’re in the car, you remember everything.
7. Who is the best rapper alive?
He’s kind of annoying, but Drake. He consistently puts out the best music. There’s nobody else who really has the same foundation he does.
And he talks trash. Maybe we could get him at a race and have him in the pits or something — like you know how he does at the Toronto (Raptors) games? He’s right on the floor.
8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?
Oh man. I try not to make too many enemies. Who do other people say? Brad (Keselowski)?
Some people have said Brad, yeah.
Yeah, I’d say Brad. Sometimes Alex (Bowman), because Alex gives me so much crap for being so young. I’ll get him back one day. He’s like my big brother.
Does he know it’s building up inside of you?
Oh, I’m sure he does. He’s told me a couple times, “One day, you’re just going to unload.” We’ll see.
9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Choose one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.
I think it’s an easy choice. Hanks for spotting because of his voice and he’s got that deep tone, which is something you need in a spotter. You don’t want some high-pitched dude up there, because it eventually sounds like white noise. I’ve had a few of those.
And then LeBron for crew chief because he’s physical, he’s built — he’d kind of intimidate all the guys on the team. He’d make the right calls and could probably jack the car up if he wanted to.
And Taylor Swift for motorhome. You’re going to see her all the time and she’s easy on the eyes, so that would be good.
10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?
Usually, you get your bus driver to scout it out and say, “Here’s one.” On the Cup days, you try to just go before the drivers meeting or something. But if you have to, usually there’s somewhere on the end of pit road. That’s normally the spot. But I’m surprised they never have any toward the front of the field, so one you get there, you’re screwed.
11. NASCAR decides they miss the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and want a replacement. How much money would they have to offer for you to backflip off your car following your next win?
Man. Probably not much. I’d be pretty excited. I don’t know if I’d land it. I’d say (Daniel) Hemric knows how to do backflips. I ran second to him a few times in Legend cars. We were back and forth and he was doing a lot of backflips then.
12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week’s was with Ross Chastain. His question for you was: If you were struggling in practice, would you let someone else get in your car to shake it down —and if so, who would you pick?
Yeah, I think it would be good at times. I had that when I ran for Kyle (Busch in the Truck Series). At a test at Bristol, something was wrong with our motor and we were like a half-second off. Christopher (Bell) and I were both there, and I got in Christopher’s truck and was able to run close to the lap times he was — so they knew it was a motor issue with mine. And we fixed the motor and it was fine.
So things like that where you’re just slow and you don’t know why, you can get Kyle Busch or someone to get in your car and at least say, “Hey, something is wrong with the motor” or “The car is doing this.”
Has anyone come to you and asked to hop in theirs?
In different series, like Legend cars or Late Models. Which is good. I think it shows some respect.
But only you know what you’re feeling in the car, so you don’t need to tell somebody else what it’s doing. A lot of people don’t trust their driver as much as they should, and it’s important to trust what they’re saying.
The next interview I’m doing is with Garrett Smithley. Do you have a question I can ask him?
He did iRacing a little bit. Does he still do iRacing and how does it help him or hurt him?
Previous 12 Questions interviews with William Byron:
Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway…
1. Jonesing for a victory
Given all the talk this week about one of the younger drivers needing to win, Erik Jones’ first career victory came at a great time. It was one of the more prominent races (Daytona!) and a solid spotlight (first race of the season on NBC’s broadcast channel, a moment so important they brought in Mike Tirico to host).
Fans who probably don’t know much about Jones got to see him light up in the post-race interview and show some personality. That’s an important platform for a young driver who needs to get more exposure.
Seriously, this is great stuff:
Does this change anything? Jones was likely going to be in the playoffs whether he won or not (he’s 13th in the standings). But a victory might do wonders for his mindset; after all, he’s still only 22.
“I’m really expecting even bigger things from him,” crew chief Chris Gayle said. “You get a little confidence in him…we all know we can do it at this level. It just kind of helps you once you kind of get the first win. Everyone in the entire team knows that. So I’m looking for big things. It’s cool.”
Out of all the big name young drivers who have come onto the scene lately — like Elliott, Blaney, Suarez, Wallace, Byron, Bowman, Ty Dillon and Jones — only one of them had won a race so far. That was Blaney last year at Pocono.
So Jones makes it two, and now maybe he has something to build on. NASCAR can certainly hope.
2. They’re wrecking…again
I’m so conflicted about races like these. On the one hand, it certainly was exciting and entertaining. It’s not like anyone watching Saturday night would say, “This is boring!” People in attendance certainly got their money’s worth and the time investment for those at home definitely paid off.
On the other hand, it’s not satisfying to see so many cars wreck in multiple crashes. Seeing a Big One is part of the game at plate tracks, so it would almost feel odd if at least one didn’t happen — like going to a concert and your favorite band not playing their famous hit song. But you also don’t need to hear that song three times in the same concert.
And yet…you can’t deny narrowing the field set the stage for a crazy finish and a first-time winner. So those are positives and added to the entertainment factor.
Then again…sigh. I don’t know, I guess I don’t really have a take here other than I’m glad these races only happen a few times a year. They’re OK in very small doses.
Thrilling and dramatic? Yes. “Racing?” Eh…
3. Ricky has had better nights, but…
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. miscalculated a side draft and took out Kyle Busch and William Byron while they were battling for the lead.
Other than that, I didn’t view his night quite as harshly as most others seemed to on social media (and in the stands, judging by the cheers from when he wrecked).
On the first Big One, I’m leaning toward Brad Keselowski’s point of view that Byron threw too big of a block.
As Keselowski spotter Joey Meier tweeted, there’s a fine line between managing a race (with the whole block-and-defend maneuvers perfected by Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and others) and throwing a block.
From what I can tell, managing the lead requires moving up and down the lanes to take away the momentum from runs. In those cases, there’s no contact.
But blocking from the lead is when the move is last-minute enough that it leaves the trailing car with two options: Check up and hit the brakes or just drive through the leader.
Keselowski elected to check up, which caused Stenhouse — who had full momentum in the draft — to get into him. That’s why I don’t blame Stenhouse for that one.
Not that Stenhouse hasn’t been guilty of such a move before.
“I thought (Byron) blocked (Keselowski), but I did that here in February and threw an aggressive block down the back straightaway that in turn caused a big crash like that, too,” Stenhouse said. “I can’t be too mad because I felt like I did that in February.”
Stenhouse won two stages, but obviously wasn’t happy about his role in the race (he was officially part of five cautions on the race report) and even made a karma reference on himself regarding Kyle Larson taking him out later due to a cut tire.
“I was frustrated with myself causing crashes like that,” he said. “You don’t ever really want to do that.”
So would he have to do some damage control with other drivers this week?
“No, it’s aggressive speedway racing,” he said. “We needed to win to get in the playoffs, so it is what it is.”
That’s probably true, but unfortunately for him, situations like these often lack nuance. He’s going to take most of the blame for everything that happened Saturday night, even though he’s only partially at fault.
4. Underdogs have their day
In a race like this, there are always going to be some unusual results. Unless I missed someone, it looks like five of the 40 drivers in the race had their best career finishes — including Jones, of course.
Ty Dillon was sixth — his best career finish and first top 10. Jeffrey Earnhardt was 11th, which was the first top 20 of his career. Also, DJ Kennington had his best career result (13th). Ray Black Jr. was in just his fourth Cup race, but he hadn’t finished better than 34th before placing 16th on Saturday night.
There were other underdogs who had great nights, too.
How about JTG Daugherty Racing getting both of its drivers in the top five? AJ Allmendinger finished third and Chris Buescher was fifth, although it was Buescher who really had a chance to win the race.
Buescher, who gave Jones the winning push past Truex, said he thought he could shove the 20 car far enough to leave the two of them to determine the race. Then he planned to nudge Jones up the hill in Turn 3. But Truex side-drafted him and took away his momentum, leaving Jones to streak to the finish line well ahead of them both.
Also, Matt DiBenedetto was seventh, which was the second-best finish of his career and shouldn’t be overlooked. And Brendan Gaughan had yet another solid result at a plate race, finishing in 12th.
5. Points Picture
Erik Jones became this season’s seventh different winner, joining Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Truex, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon.
That means there are currently nine spots available to make the playoffs on points with just eight races left in the regular season.
Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney are virtual locks.
Jimmie Johnson is currently safe by 54 points, Chase Elliott is in by 37 points and then Bowman (the cutoff position) is 19 points ahead of Stenhouse.
Stenhouse and Paul Menard (-55) are the only drivers with a realistic shot right now of making it on points.
Up next: Kentucky Speedway, where it should be back to the usual suspects running up front.
Here are some of the highlights from Friday at Kansas Speedway:
Kenseth returns, but…
Matt Kenseth had a bummer of a first day back in NASCAR.
While Kenseth said it took him only two laps to feel like he’d never been out of a car, the No. 6 Ford itself appears to need some work — maybe more than his fans anticipated.
After Kenseth was only 28th in practice and his car didn’t get on track to qualify due to not passing inspection in time, the 46-year-old acknowledged it was a rough day.
“We didn’t have a lot of speed in practice at all today and we have some work to do to get it driving better as well,” said Kenseth, who will start 35th. “It’s going to take some patience. I’m not a super patient person, but it’s going to take a little time and some patience on everyone’s part to get this rolling in the direction we need it to.”
Kenseth was late starting practice because his car had trouble getting through tech inspection. He then made several short runs in the limited time — some as short as one lap — as he attempted to quickly diagnose the car’s issues.
“I knew what I was looking for and I could get a read rather quickly — at least which direction a change brought us in, whether it was a positive change or a negative change,” he said. “Really trying to get through enough stuff.”
Part of Kenseth’s task in his return to Roush Fenway Racing is to get the cars driving better again, and Friday showed how much work there is to be done.
“I didn’t have a lot of expectations for today (speed-wise),” he said. “I was hoping today would go smoother than what it went. I certainly hoped we would have been faster than what we showed in practice.”
Harvick the destroyer
Kevin Harvick, winner of four races this season and dominator of pretty much every week this season, was asked after winning the pole whether he plans on giving anyone else a chance at Kansas.
“I hope not,” he said. “I have no plans to.”
With apologies to Kyle Busch, the other drivers are well aware of who the top driver is this season so far.
Harvick is “head and shoulders above everyone else right now,” outside polesitter Ryan Blaney said.
“Kevin seems to be by far the fastest right now,” William Byron said.
Harvick now has 23 career poles, and 17 of them have come since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Bowyer on blame
Clint Bowyer’s rear-window violation at Dover was due to a broken part and wasn’t intentional — at least according to Bowyer.
After his second-place finish was penalized this week, Bowyer said he was certain his crew wasn’t trying to skirt the rules. He said to look at the pictures for proof.
“If we’d have been pushing hard and they were foolish and got caught doing something bad and I felt like that’s how I got that performance advantage and that’s why I ran so good last weekend, you’d feel like you cheated somebody,” he said. “But I looked back at 150 pictures that we have available to us and went back and looked at the other guys that had the same problem — and I just didn’t see the same result.”
Bowyer will be without his usual car chief for the next two races.
Speaking of penalties…
Martin Truex Jr. said NASCAR’s rules are “over-enforced” and fans are tired of hearing about penalties every Wednesday. Dover runnerup Bowyer and third-place finisher Daniel Suarez were both among those to receive major penalties this week.
“(Fans) think everyone is cheating and (say) ‘This is ridiculous,’ and ‘I don’t want to watch racing because these guys are frauds.'” Truex said. “I’ve seen (the penalties) that happened this week, and that’s not why that guy ran third or why that guy ran second. Let’s have some common sense in the way we enforce some of these things.”
Truex said he recognizes NASCAR is in a “tough spot” in search of a level playing field, but is frustrated at the ongoing issue.
“Wednesday inspection, you take four cars (after the race),” he said. “If you took the whole field, 38 of them might have failed this particular week. You had so many that didn’t pass.”
Ryan Blaney suggested NASCAR should still do the penalties but not tell anyone about them in order to keep the conversation focused on the racing each week.
Byron quietly having solid season
The Hendrick Motorsports cars have still been a bit off, but William Byron is measuring himself against his teammates — not the rest of the field. And he feels like he’s making gains in that department.
“I’m running close to where my teammates are and that is always really a reference point for how you are performing,” he said. “I feel like I’m right in the middle of them sometimes. Richmond, we were probably the best of our cars and I was really excited about that.
“I think that I am able to run with them, and if I can do that and continue that progression, once we do get the speed that we need we will all be that much better.”
Byron said at the start of the year, there was a bit of a shock with some races like Atlanta. And when they missed it in those races, it was a big miss. But now, he said, “the misses are a lot better” and are still competitive performances — like a top-15 instead of top-30.
Byron has eight top-20 finishes in his 11 Cup starts and is 17th in the point standings.
Almirola doesn’t care who owns NASCAR
Most drivers didn’t have much to say about the report NASCAR is up for sale, but Aric Almirola said it didn’t matter to him, anyway.
“I just show up every single weekend excited to go race and that’s what I love,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always done, so for me, as long as there’s a platform and a ride available for me to go race, I don’t really care who owns it. That’s just the truth. I know that’s probably not the answer you’re looking for, but I could give a crap less.”
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.
Scott Speed, the former F1 and NASCAR driver turned three-time Global Rallycross champion, overflows with honesty. He was either born without the instinct to have filters or long ago decided to discard them.
So it’s no surprise that one question into an interview about Speed RC — the indoor racetrack and hobby shop he co-owns with NASCAR’s T.J. Bell — Speed grins from beneath the brim of a flat-billed hat and lets the truth pour out.
“This has probably been the biggest life lesson I’ve ever had because A) I realized I don’t like customers, and B) customers are terrible,” Speed said.
The customers in question come to the store to buy RC car parts, but they don’t understand that Speed is already selling the parts as cheaply as he can. So when some of them try to haggle over prices, it drives him nuts.
“This one guy came in and he wanted to break my balls over some part,” Speed said. “I pulled out my wallet and was like, ‘Here, do you wanna take my credit card? Do you want anything else? How else can I help you? Please, would you like a drink? Now that I think about it, can you take this? I’m gonna pay you $5 dollars to take this.'”
“I was having a bad day,” he said with a shrug.
Speed laughs at the story, because he knows something I don’t: The successful business I thought I was here to write about actually isn’t successful at all.
“It costs me money,” Speed said. “I’ve almost got it to where I can break even or maybe lose $10,000 or $20,000 a year. It will definitely never make money. The margins aren’t there.”
So wait a minute. Why is Speed keeping the doors open if Speed RC doesn’t make money and never will? As it turns out, there’s a compelling reason.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about RC racing. These aren’t the little cars you got for Christmas from Toys R Us and drove around your neighborhood cul de sac until the batteries died.
These are agile vehicles that zip around Speed’s dirt track like mechanical bees, whipping through corners and flying over jumps. They demand an insane amount of skill to master, which is why the likes of Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray and Justin Allgaier have spent hours at Speed RC in their spare time.
“Most forms of racing come down to 90 percent car, 10 percent driver, right?” Speed said. “Well this is 90 percent driver and 10 percent car. It’s all you! You can’t hide! It’s a big excuse eliminator, and that’s why I love it.”
Lots of people love it aside from just Speed, and many of them will be at the track this weekend. Speed RC will play host to the 350-entry JConcepts Indoor National Series Finals, which brings the best RC racers in the world to compete.
Most of the time, though, the track isn’t hosting elite events. The typical week is closer to the feel of a bowling alley, where amateurs can drop by to play around or those with more experience can go head-to-head in a series of league nights.
Compared to other forms of competitive racing, it’s by far the most affordable. While high-level karting or Late Model racing can cost thousands, a competitive RC car is $500 (an entry level version can be had for as low as $180). And $1,000 will get you the exact car used by the national champion — setup and all.
“It’s down there on the budget list, which I love,” Speed said. “I love the idea that anybody can do it.”
It definitely takes some practice to get good, though. Speed insisted I give it a try, and — holy crap! — my car looked like Milka Duno driving with her eyes closed.
Racers stand atop a wooden platform overlooking the track with a remote in their hands, eyes focused on their cars going around the track. An automated voice calls out the lap times as each car passes the finish line to help drivers track their progress. Though the track layout changes every few months, the good drivers seemed to run about 15-second lap times in the session I was in; meanwhile, my laps were closer to two minutes.
I got in the way of other vehicles, crashed into barriers, flipped over jumps and got stuck against the wall — and that was just the first lap. On the next lap, I was overzealous on one jump and almost took out Bell — who was standing on the course as a marshal.
“I’m glad you can write,” Bell said afterward, laughing.
But while anyone can learn to be fast (one local woman who stands out is a high school math teacher), pro racers seem to pick it up more quickly than others. That’s especially the case for motorcross riders, who grew up going over jumps and handling corners on dirt; somehow, their brains adjust for the different angle.
“It all comes down to learning,” Speed said. “I can go around the track a couple dozen times, and based on the lap times I’m hearing and how the car goes around the track, I can figure out what the fastest, most efficient way to go around the track is.
“That’s literally all racing is. You take the car back to the line as fast as you can and you try to analyze: Was that better or worse? It’s really not any different than that. Everybody can develop car control and drive a car super early on in life. Then it becomes learning what the car wants you to do to it to make it go faster.”
Along those lines, it probably won’t surprise you to learn the best NASCAR driver to come through the track recently and quickly get up to speed is none other than William Byron. A regular at Speed RC, Byron has figured out RC racing as fast as he’s figured out stock cars.
Speed had no idea who Byron was when the 20-year-old started showing up, but he was impressed right away.
“Nicest freaking kid,” Speed said. “He’s gone from being a little worse than me to now when me and him race, he will beat me three out of five times.”
Byron faithfully comes to race whenever possible and even won a league race the night before flying to Miami for the start of Homestead weekend, where he captured the Xfinity Series championship.
“To me, what better thing to do during the week than go race?” Byron said. “It takes a lot of mental focus to do that for that period of time and win races. … It kind of gets me prepared for the (NASCAR) weekend.”
On the night I was at Speed RC, no one seemed to pay any mind that a future NASCAR star was in their midst. Byron blended in, sitting at his work station like everyone else who prepped their cars; he even served as a course marshal after his runs (which is the standard track etiquette for each driver after they race).
“Nobody treats me any different, and that’s what you want,” he said.
But as good as Byron is, he’s perhaps not quite at the level of a 16-year-old named Rex Mathis — who happens to be Speed’s stepson.
The real brains behind the Speed RC operation is a Speed, but it’s not Scott. It’s his wife Amanda, who grew up in a drag racing family and later worked in NASCAR team public relations — where she met Scott.
It’s Amanda who is constantly working on something for the business (“She’s 700 percent more productive than I am,” Scott said) and is essentially the contractor for a new building that will house Speed RC next year.
She juggles running the business between being a mom to Rex and the two young daughters — Juliet and Ava — she has with Scott.
Like any small business, operating Speed RC can be difficult, exhausting, thankless work. But when the place is packed and Amanda sees people happy, she feels like it’s worth it.
“I mean, yeah, I’d like this place to make money,” she said. “But how many kids are 15, 16, 17 years old back there? They’re not hanging out somewhere doing drugs.
“Or my little girls, they can come here and play with other kids. It’s a fun family atmosphere. You have all walks of life here. It’s cool to me to see everyone in one place, hanging out and getting along.
“We need that, especially in today’s world. You get to know people by name. Everybody here has become family and friends.”
Scott said the track has become “effectively a charity at this point,” not the profitable business he envisioned when drawing up the plans a few years ago. But he remembers how much of a role karting had in keeping him out of trouble as a kid, and he hopes RC cars can be the same sort of activity for local youths.
“I never went out and partied because I had something to focus on,” he said. “So it’s really important for me to have some place where Rex can do that, as well as kids his age. I see it as a good club, like the YMCA.”
But there’s one more reason Speed RC is important to Scott, and it’s a big one. Maybe the biggest.
Rex has gotten good enough at RC racing to where he’s attracted sponsorship for his skills. And the fact Scott, 34, can stand alongside his 16-year-old stepson on the platform and compete? Well, that’s worth more than having the business make money.
“It’s hard when you have a stepson to make connection, because you miss the blood aspect,” Scott said. “So you’re trying to connect with the stepson that you don’t know how to connect to. It’s difficult.
“But the racing, it really gave us something to connect over. Therefore, Speed RC is still going.”