KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Every driver in the Hendrick Motorsports stable pulled into Kansas Speedway for this week’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race knowing they could be the one to give the team boss his 300th series win.
If Rick Hendrick had his druthers, he might well put William Byron at the top of the list.
Kyle Larson advanced to the next round of the playoffs with last week’s win at Darlington, taking all the pressure off the No. 5 team while giving the 74-year-old owner his 299th win. Now, the pressure is on Byron to join Larson with a victory of his own, even if the No. 24 car is leading the playoff points race and in strong position to advance to the next round.
“I feel like we’ve been struggling to put Saturdays together just in terms of results, but we’ve had speed,” Byron said. “Luckily our Sundays have been really good, so we’ll just have to go to work again tomorrow.”
His luck might be changing on Saturday, too. Byron had a suspension part break during practice and thought he would have to start at the rear on Sunday, but NASCAR deemed it a part problem rather than a team problem, and that means Byron will start in the ninth position where he had qualified.
Byron already has won five times this season, and his latest victory at Watkins Glen began a streak of three straight top-10 finishes. That included last week at Darlington, where he qualified outside the top 20 yet still finished fourth.
“I think back in the spring, Kyle got spun on like, the fifth lap, and then nearly won that race,” Byron said. “He made it back up. It depends on cautions and restarts, but I mean, I think the goal after the first stage would be 10th to 12th. I think that’s realistic. If we have a good car, I think we can do that. And we had a great car today.”
So did Larson, who qualified second to pole sitter Christopher Bell, and Chase Elliott, who failed to qualify for the playoffs after a topsy-turvy season but qualified his No. 9 fourth as he searches for his first win of the year.
The win that would give Hendrick his 300th.
There have been 20 drivers to reach victory lane for Hendrick since his team’s first win with Geoff Bodine on April 29, 1984. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson provided the vast majority of them, but Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are among the stars of the sport that have helped drive the win total ever higher.
“We had a solid race last weekend at Darlington and it was a good showing for Hendrick Motorsports as a whole,” Byron said. “I think we have the potential have another solid race this weekend.”
Bell won the pole with a lap of 180.276 mph, giving him a comfortable margin over the rest of the field. He is one point ahead of Bubba Wallace, who would be the first car out of the next round of the playoffs.
“If I keep my guys in it and get our race car, which is super fast, to the end of the race, we are going to be in a really good spot,” Bells said. “I love this racetrack. I love qualifying here, too. It’s so much fun to be able to drive as hard as you can, put it right up against the wall and see what she’s got.”
Along with Byron’s suspension issue, Busch and playoff outsider Ty Gibbs will be starting from the rear. Both had tires go down and wound up slapping the wall, leaving them with heavy enough damage that they were unable to qualify.
Busch got loose a week ago at Darlington and hit the wall in similar fashion. He rallied to finish 11th and remain in the title hunt.
“Always put in a hole, always behind, always have to dig ourselves out,” Busch said. “Hate it for the guys.”
Wallace’s car failed inspection twice, leading to the loss of pit stall selection and the ejection of his car chief. That could make it a long day for Wallace, the defending race winner, who is one point below the playoff cut line.
“Still trying to find that perfect balance that we had last year and it wasn’t even perfect then,” Wallace said. “We’ll just be fine-tuning everything to get where you want the car to be, where the driver wants it to be.”
RFK RACING’S ROLL
Chris Buescher finished third at Darlington and these days that seems like a disappointment. He’s won three of his past six starts for RFK Racing, leaving him fourth in the playoff race and four spots ahead of team co-owner Brad Keselowski. Neither was too happy with their cars in qualifying, though. Keselowski will start 12th, with Buescher one spot behind him.
“It’s the fruits of a lot of people. It surely didn’t happen overnight,” Keselowski, who was sixth at Darlington, said of the team’s recent success. “We’re not all the way and we can’t get caught up in the progress we’ve made so far.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Larson is the 4-1 favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Byron is second at 5-1 and Martin Truex Jr. is third at 6-1. … Plenty of other playoff contenders had poor qualifying efforts. Kevin Harvick will start two points below the playoff cut line in 20th, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Blaney also will start outside the top 15.