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Analysis: What we learned from the first NASCAR road-course race of 2024

AUSTIN, Texas — William Byron’s dominant day at Circuit of The Americas confirmed at least one thing: He hasn’t lost a step of his road-course game since last year.

The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team cruised to victory in Sunday afternoon’s NASCAR Cup Series race after leading a race-high 42 laps, scoring his second win on a road course in the last three such events. The only exception? A second-place finish at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course last fall.

RELATED: Race recap | At-track photos

Byron’s defense against Christopher Bell in the closing stages affirmed both his road-racing prowess and Toyota’s ever-looming speed.

“I never saw him make a mistake, which is what it was going to take to win today in the closing laps,” said Jeff Gordon, vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. “Because Bell had the faster car with the fresher tires, any big lockup into a corner, I think it would have been a different outcome. A lot of credit to William in doing that great job. Takes the whole team, the pit crew, everybody. They‘re truly on quite a run here to start this season off. Can‘t wait to see where they take it next.”

Gordon, like most in the garage, admitted he expected Toyotas to dominate Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix — even though Byron put the No. 24 Chevrolet on pole position. 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick controlled COTA a year ago and showed plenty of speed in Saturday’s practice, as did the Joe Gibbs Racing quartet of Bell, Ty Gibbs, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

“They‘ve got a lot of speed,” Gordon said. “It‘s one thing when one car has speed, it‘s another thing when a group of them have speed. That tells you a lot about what they have, what they‘re bringing to the race track. It‘s certainly on our radar in a big way.”

Christopher Bell leads William Byron and others during a NASCAR race at COTA.
Christopher Bell leads William Byron and others during a NASCAR race at COTA.

But so is Byron, who became the first multi-time Cup winner this year — and the first multi-time winner in each of the last three seasons. For him and crew chief Rudy Fugle, Sunday’s performance was business as usual on road courses, which is particularly notable since Watkins Glen International joins the NASCAR Playoffs this year in addition to Charlotte’s road course.

“I think it‘s just part of the process and our evolution for our notebook for these race tracks,” Byron said. “I feel like for us, we can just take from this another data point of what we need to improve. I don‘t think anyone‘s car was driving perfect there. Just the way that this race track is with the ride over the bumps, just the way the curbing is, the track is pretty rough. I feel like it drives different than anywhere.

“At the same time, you can put this one in the notebook and say, ‘OK, when we go to what‘s next, whenever we go to the next one, we know what to work on.’ We‘ll just try to keep building at each one. I feel like we‘ve gotten in a rhythm. We just have gotten a good feel for these places.”

Reddick told NASCAR.com earlier that it was important for his No. 45 Toyota to be “part of the conversation of winning this race.” That never really came into play Sunday, with Reddick leading just one lap and finishing fifth after qualifying third.

“I shouldn’t say it’s a bad day, but it’s not what we want when we come to a road course, right?” Reddick said. “We were able to get away with some mistakes in certain areas with a fifth place. So I mean, that’s not a bad thing, right? Obviously, none of us are satisfied with how we finished so we’ll be hungry. We’ll be working on it and getting ready for the next road course.”

Though Bell fell short at the buzzer, his electric charge should not be forgotten, either. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota — also a previous winner this season — has been a continuous threat on road courses with top 10s in 11 of his 21 starts on such tracks. Bell nearly erased a nine-second deficit to catch Byron’s bumper, falling short by just 0.692 seconds at the checkered flag.

Gibbs also shined with a third-place run, cementing the belief his Toyota teammates continue to preach — that a road-course victory is likely coming soon for the 21-year-old sophomore racer.

The good news for the field is that the next road race isn’t scheduled until June, when the Cup Series shifts westward to Sonoma Raceway in California. Until then, the notes from Circuit of The Americas will dictate teams’ next steps in trying to dethrone the No. 24 team.