Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – SONOMA, CA – As William Byron took his first quick laps around Sonoma Raceway in Friday’s opening Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, he got a surprise.
“It was wild,” said Byron, who was 14th fastest in the session. “I was surprised how much grip the track has lost in some areas. It’s not as black as it was last year, for sure. I feel like it has less grip up the hill into Turn 1, which is kind of interesting.
“The track was really dirty to start, so it had to get cleaned up. Guys were throwing rocks into the groove, too.”
If there’s one thing that hasn’t surprised Byron, it’s the no-nonsense relationship he has developed with seven-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus, who moved to Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet this season after 17 years with Jimmie Johnson.
“It’s been very similar to what I thought it would be,” Byron said of the interaction with Knaus. “I’ve been around him for about a year now, in the debriefs and knowing how he works with Jimmie and his team. I feel like it wasn’t much of a surprise.
“Honestly, I feel like he’s very direct, so you don’t have to worry about whether he’s trying to send you a message in a certain way or if he’s trying to blow you off. He’ll tell you if you’re doing something wrong.”
That approach seems to suit Byron.
“I think so,” said Byron, who improved to seventh in Friday’s final practice. “I don’t really think there’s any reason to be offended at the track when someone tells you what you’re doing wrong. You have to learn from it. He’s helped me with that by just being really direct and not having to worry about the emotional side of things at the track.”
On Saturday, Byron continued to improve his speed, qualifying second for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 behind pole winner Kyle Larson.
DAVID RAGAN CAN BENEFIT FROM MICHAEL MCDOWELL’S EXPERTISE
Michael McDowell isn’t a road-course ringer, but he would be if he weren’t a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver for Front Row Motorsports.
Before he came to stock car racing, McDowell was an instructor at the Bondurant Racing School in Chandler, Arizona. David Ragan clearly feels a coattail effect from having McDowell as a teammate at Front Row as he readies for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway (3 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Absolutely,” Ragan said. “Over the years, I have had great teammates that run good out here. Having a teammate like Michael as we are coming to a track where he has raced on the carousel before, so he kind of knows where the passing zone is, where you can be aggressive and where you need to be conservative at.
“He gives you a few of those tips. Obviously, he’s racing against us, so he isn’t going to tell us everything. It’s good to have a teammate like that to help me as a driver, but to also help the company to work on adjustments and gear ratios and what works good for him, I can usually adapt and make it work for me too.”
McDowell qualified 13th for Sunday’s race, missing the second round by .099 seconds. Ragan wasn’t far behind. He’ll start 18th.
NEW BERM IN TURN 5 DOESN’T AFFECT DENNY HAMLIN
Denny Hamlin wasn’t one of the drivers running off course in Turn 5 during practice and kicking up dirt and debris onto the racing surface.
But enough drivers had difficulty in the new corner—thanks to the reinstitution of the Sonoma Raceway carousel—that the competitors were greeted with a new berm in that corner when they came to the track for qualifying on Saturday.
Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, lobbied for curbing in the corner.
“Everybody was dumping their right sides off the race track and dumping dirt on the race track and kind of messing it up for the people that were behind them,” Busch said. “It’s going to get really dirty over there. Guys might be racing side-by-side during the race. The outside guy is definitely going to want to crowd the inside guy and go halfway into the dirt. So it was going to get interesting.
“If you’re a guy that’s leading the race—and you’re coming down to the last lap—just dump your tires into the dirt and the guy behind you is never going to catch you. It didn’t seem like it was all that smart not to have a curb over there.”
But the new berm didn’t faze Hamlin, who had the fastest Toyota in Saturday’s qualifying (sixth overall).
“It didn’t affect me any,” said Hamlin, who qualified one spot ahead of Busch. “I wasn’t one of the guys that was getting off the track.
“I thought it was good, because, obviously, when it gets down in the race, if you didn’t have that, you would just run in the dirt. It is unique for sure. We’re going to use every bit of the racetrack. I didn’t really use it to begin with, but I think it’s good that they can keep the track clean.”