AVONDALE, Ariz. – Cars have officially hit the track to kick off championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
Leading the way for Hendrick Motorsports in the 50-minute NASCAR Cup Series practice session was the driver of the No. 24 Axalta Racing Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, William Byron. The Charlotte, North Carolina, native's fastest lap time 130.011 mph was the seventh-fastest on single-lap pace. Over the 10- and 15-lap averages, Byron placed third. He was also second over a 20-lap run.
The 2023 season has been a breakout year for the 25-year-old driver. He has scored a series-high six victories, led 921 laps, won eight stages and has earned a 6.33 average finish through the first nine races of the playoffs. On Sunday afternoon, he enters Phoenix with a shot at his first career Cup Series championship.
Crew chief Rudy Fugle spoke to the media after Friday's on-track activity. While the weekend is still young, the No. 24 team is looking forward to what lies ahead.
"I thought we got better by the end of practice compared to where we started, which is always a good thing," Fugle said. "We have a good spot to go work on it. I think we got a shot."
While the team did advance to the Championship 4, it was not without adversity. Last weekend's race at Martinsville Speedway pushed the team to their limits. Although they did survive the scare, Fugle has already left the event behind in his memory and put a full focus on the title race at hand.
"It helps that we made it. We have an ultra-focus for this week," Fugle said on advancing past the Round of 8. "You can't carry that stuff. We race way too much to carry that with you. We'll probably talk about Martinsville (Speedway) again in probably 10 days. We talked about it real quick Monday morning and we were done and over with."
Following behind Byron was Kyle Larson and the No. 5 HendrickCars.com entry. The 31-year-old driver was tied for the 10th-fastest lap during Friday afternoon’s session at 129.846 mph. Larson posted the 10th-best 10-lap average and the eighth-best 20-lap average.
In 2021, Larson took home the checkered flag at Phoenix to claim his first Cup Series title. For this season, the Elk Grove, California, native is looking to recreate that feat. This season, he has earned four points-paying victories with two coming in the playoffs – wins to open the Round of 16 at Darlington Raceway and the Round 8 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The latter secured his spot in the Championship 4 for the second time in three years as the team aims to earn its second championship in three seasons.
Larson did scrap the wall during the practice session, but the slight contact did not damage the car in any significant way. Crew chief Cliff Daniels likes that Larson pushes the car hard.
"I've got no problem with him pushing hard," Daniels said. "I genuinely think this happened on the straightaway. This isn't exactly an overstepping the edge type of situation. He always pushes the car really hard, especially in practice, which is great for us, right? It lets us know what kind of speed he can extract out of it and what kind of adjustments we need to make. Today was certainly the case.
Historically, the championship race has placed a big emphasis on the pit crew, a fact that Larson himself has benefitted from in the past. The team's clutch stop with under 30 laps to go in the 2021 title race put Larson in the lead for good. For this weekend, Daniels' approach to pit road includes a high level of confidence in his team.
"When you look at the yearly statistics of the Cup field of pit crews, A, it's incredibly tight, and B, all of our teams are right up there," Daniels said. "It's exactly what you want in a championship race. Four great teams going for it. I'm sure it will be really, really tight if it does boil down to that."
Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman placed 21st and 22nd in practice, respectively. Elliott was the ninth-best car on the 10-lap average board and the sixth-best across 15 laps.
Phoenix has been a track of success for Elliott. In 2020, the No. 9 entry took home the race victory along with a championship. In fact, his 546 laps led are the second-most of any track in his Cup Series career with Martinsville being the only track where he has been out front for more circuits. While the No. 9 team was eliminated from the owner championship fight last weekend, they'll look to finish the 2023 season on a high note come Sunday afternoon.
Phoenix serves as a home race for Bowman, driver of the No. 48 Ally Racing Chevy, who hails from Tucson, Arizona. In his career, he has led 195 laps at the 1-mile track in the Arizona desert.
Unlike most race weekends, practice and qualifying did not take place on the same day. Tune in on Saturday, November 4 at 4:30 p.m. ET on USA Network to watch the starting grid take shape as qualifying gets underway. The Cup Series main event at Phoenix will take place the following day on Sunday, November 5 at 3 p.m. ET with coverage on NBC, Peacock, MRN Radio and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).