MARTINSVILLE, Va. – William Byron earned his first Championship 4 appearance, while Kyle Larson led the way for the Hendrick Motorsports quartet at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday afternoon.
Byron joins Larson in the Championship 4, giving Hendrick Motorsports two drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series title race for the second time in three years. Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney are the other drivers who will be fighting for the championship next Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
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"All that matters is the result," Byron said. "My crew chief (Rudy Fugle) knew what buttons to push.
"We dug deep. I’m just proud of my whole team. They stuck behind me and they gave me adjustments that I needed and I’m just really proud of them. I wanted to make the Championship 4 for them. Just drove the hell out of it for the last 30 laps. We were sliding all around, but that’s what it took."
At Martinsville, Larson started from the fifth position in the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. He just missed out on stage points in the opening 130 laps. In the second stage, Larson battled a condition that saw his car “tight in the center with no drive off.” Staying out under caution for the start of the final stage gave the team track position as Larson restarted sixth. While running 16th, crew chief Cliff Daniels made a strategy call on lap 325 for fuel only that helped his driver regain track position to restart from the top six. Over the closing 168-lap green-flag run, he maintained a position in the top 10, ultimately finishing sixth for his 17th top-10 finish of the season. The result gives Larson an average finish of 3.00 in the last three Martinsville races.
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"My team made some good strategy calls there in the final stage to get some track position and come away with the best finish possible," Larson said
Now, the 31-year-old driver will compete for his second Cup Series championship at Phoenix. Larson won the title in 2021 in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports.
"I’m excited to get there," Larson said. "I know it’s going to be a tough battle. Ryan (Blaney), they’ve done a really good job and they’ve been probably the best team here lately. They will be really tough to beat as well as Christopher (Bell) and William (Byron). So yeah, it’s going to be fun."
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Byron started the 500-lap race from the 16th position in the No. 24 PODS Chevrolet. It was a grind-it-out effort for both the driver and the Rudy Fugle-led team. In the first half of the race, the 25-year-old driver fought a “little bit tight center” condition. The six-time winner in 2023 also battled with a hot race car that as his helmet fan "wasn't pushing enough clean air to me." With no stage points earned in the first two stages, the standings as they run got close heading into the final stage. Over the final 240-lap stage, the adjustments the team was making to the car were making a noticeable difference and Byron stayed after it. Late in the race, Byron was able to pick off some spots from cars on different strategies and that helped him build enough of a cushion to be good on points. His 13th-place result was enough to see Byron finish eight points ahead of Denny Hamlin the final spot in the Championship 4.
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Chase Elliott lined up from the 14th position in the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevy. In the opening stage, he communicated that the car was tight across the center but his entry and exit were getting better. A decision to stay out for the start of stage two placed Elliott in the top 10 and he would finish the stage in 15th. Early in the final stage, the Dawsonville, Georgia, native communicated that despite the car turning better, he still didn’t have drive. Under a caution on lap 305, crew chief Alan Gustafson brought his driver down for right-side tires. That call set up a strategic decision to stay out under yellow on lap 325, which led to Elliott taking the lead as the leaders all pitted. The No. 9 team was still in the mix for the owner championship but was in a must-win spot to advance.
Elliott would lead for 83 laps, the third-highest total of the race. Shortly before Aric Almirola took the lead from the 2020 Cup Series champion with 89 laps to go, Elliott let the team know the “right rear was cooked.” With the final run going green for 168 laps and his last stop coming at lap 305, Elliott pitted on lap 490 for fuel and two right-side tires. The 27-year-old driver finished 17th.
"Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) made a great call that got us track position," Elliott said. "We just didn't get the caution we needed at the end for it to work out. I hate that we didn't get the car into the owner championship, but proud of the effort this entire NAPA team put in throughout the playoffs."
Alex Bowman took the green flag from the 22nd position in the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. On lap 104, contact with Harrison Burton caused Bowman’s car to go around. While there was some damage to the ride, he was able to continue in the race. The 30-year-old driver fought the handling of his race car for much of the day, struggling with front turn and feeling like the car was so hot that he was struggling down the straightaways. This race saw very hot temperatures in the low 80s for what is usually a crisp fall event at the Virginia short track. At the end of the race, Bowman was scored in the 32nd position.
"Blake (Harris, crew chief) and this whole No. 48 Ally Racing team did everything they could with the cards we were dealt early," Bowman said. "(It's) on to Phoenix Raceway to try to close our year out on a positive note."
Tune in next week to watch the championship race from Phoenix on Sunday, Nov. 5. Byron and Larson will be competing to win the organization’s 15th Cup Series championship. Coverage of the 312-lap race will start at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).