AVONDALE – As things stood with 11 laps remaining in Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway, only one caution had come out in the previous 301 laps.
However, the next two caution flags completely flipped the narrative of the race.
William Byron won Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500, winning his second race in as many weeks. It moved him up to fourth in the NASCAR Cup Series standings and makes him the only driver with multiple wins this season.
Both overtime victories came thanks to excellent pit road execution and strategy calls by crew chief Rudy Fugle. He made the call to go with just two tires on “the money stop,” choosing track position over a tire advantage.
According to Fugle, he consulted a fellow Hendrick Motorsports crew chief on the big call.
“Cliff (Daniels) and I were chatting about what strategy we were going to do, we were open in the chat multiple times, (asking) if we were going to take four or two, how we were going to do it,” Fugle said. “So even racing each other for the win, (we were) fully working together.
“We work together great, all four crew chiefs, all four teams. We look at each other’s cars all week long and make adjustments and each driver is a little different.”
On the overtime restart, Byron and teammate Kyle Larson found themselves side by side battling for the lead down the backstretch of Phoenix Raceway’s one-mile oval. Byron completed the pass thanks to a push from Tyler Reddick just before the field took the white flag, giving Byron the position needed to hold the field off and secure the checkered flag.
“William was just doing a really good job launching every time he was on the front row with me,” Larson said. “He did another good job, and I thought I ran in deep enough to at least have position on him.
“He obviously ran in deeper than me and was able to roll more center corner speed. I know they didn’t technically spray resin down there, but it still hangs around even years after spraying it.
“It finally came in there with 50 to go, so I knew the outside lane was going to be tough to hold off.”
Larson led the overwhelming majority of Sunday’s race, leading a total of 201 laps. At one point, it seemed Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate would run away with the win.
However, the door seemed to be shut on Larson’s dominant day when Kevin Harvick passed him for the lead late in stage three. Had Harvick been able to hold on, it would have been his 10th career victory at Phoenix Raceway.
Instead, Byron recorded his sixth career victory in the NASCAR Cup Series. Sitting next to the former driver of the No. 24 car, Jeff Gordon, Byron did his best to reflect on his journey since weathering the pressure of entering the Cup Series.
“When I first started out it was a lot of pressure going into my rookie year not having any Cup starts,” Byron said. “I don’t think you really understand the magnitude of that shift. Everyone prepares you for it, going from Xfinity to Cup.
“But the level that this is, it’s so different. So many details that go into it. So that was a lot of pressure, but once we got a win under our belt and once we got some consistency going, you stop thinking about that.”
Sunday’s race was also the first race with NASCAR’s new short-track rules package. The new package was the main topic of discussion among drivers heading into Phoenix, with speculation carrying into race day as to how exactly the changes would affect racing.
“They were certainly hard to drive,” Byron said of the new rules. “I think that’s a good test to see who’s the best out there. Kyle’s (Larson) probably the most naturally talented, I think it just shows guys were having to drive their cars and manage that. It made for a really difficult challenge inside the race car – just how many times I slipped, how much slip was too much and how much was enough to keep going fast.”
The Cup Series field now heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for next Sunday’s Folds Of Honor QuickTrip 500. NASCAR will return to the Valley for Championship Weekend with the Cup Series Championship set for Nov. 5.