Friday 5: Examining the most intriguing storyline of the Cup playoffs

Dustin Long

LAS VEGAS — They could be viewed as NASCAR’s odd couple, a blend of youth and experience, of past and present. No other driver/crew chief combination in the Cup playoffs has as wide of an age gap as Chad Knaus and William Byron at 27 years.

And no other combination in the playoffs has as many championships. Of course, Knaus won seven titles with Jimmie Johnson and Byron makes his Cup playoff debut Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

While Joe Gibbs Racing (just pick a driver) is the favorite to win the title, Kevin Harvick is the hottest driver and Joey Logano seeks a second consecutive championship, one of the most intriguing storylines of the postseason could be Knaus and Byron.

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They’ve spent their first season together learning and adjusting to each other. The result has been significant gains at times.

“I feel like the first 10 races were kind of that newness and awkward stage of a relationship in trying to figure out how not to step on each other’s toes,” Byron said Thursday during playoff media day at South Point Hotel Casino. “And there were some heated moments, to be honest. We had some things that we didn’t execute as well as we wanted to. And then we got to the meat of the season in the summer, and we just started to really click.”

As that relationship progressed, Byron also hit a key milestone in the All-Star Race in May. He raced his way into the All-Star Race with an aggressive style.

“It was, at least for me, a turning point because it gave me the confidence that I could do it,” Byron said.

But Byron doesn’t mean aggressive in the sense of knocking people out of the way. Instead, he was aggressive in how he contemplated his next move on the track.

You’re kind of anticipating what moves to make,” Byron said. “You’re taking advantage of situations more than you are defending situations, and I think that was a big difference. Coming to a restart and thinking about how can I take advantage of this person or this person or get the best start that I can. That’s what changed for me in that race.”

While Byron has continued to learn, he’s also made an impact on Knaus in at least one way.

“As far as me shaping him, I think the only thing is just staying positive and staying motivated in the race,” Byron said. “I don’t seem to do well with like negative energy.”

How did he get his point across?

“I think situations have played out on the track to where it’s kind of been understood that we’ve got to do things a different way,” Byron said. “We both have our way of doing things. I’ve really accepted the way he does things, and he’s accepted the way I do things. Any good working relationship is kind of that compromise.”

He admits one key learning point came at Watkins Glen when Knaus all but ordered Byron to hit Kyle Busch’s car in retaliation for earlier contact. Busch slammed his brakes and that created a greater impact when Byron ran into the back of Busch’s car. The result was Byron damaged his car more than Busch’s was hurt.

“I think it was a turning point for us because I realized I’m the guy driving the car and ultimately the decisions that I make affect what I do,” Byron said. “Obviously, that trickles down to my team and all the work they’re putting in.”

2. Way in the past

It is nearing 10 years since Denny Hamlin was in position to win the championship only to see mistakes and misfortune rob him of that opportunity.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver still seeks his first Cup crown.

Hamlin, who won this year’s Daytona 500, is confident entering the playoffs after a season with four victories, including two in the last six races.

But until he wins a championship, that 2010 title race will remain something he’s asked about. He entered that season finale in Miami with a slim points lead after he gave away several points by pitting for fuel late in the season’s penultimate race in Phoenix. In Miami, Hamlin faltered during the weekend and Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive title.

I just got too excited in the moment,” Hamlin said Thursday. “I remember when it all started on qualifying day. Watching a couple guys run up high in qualifying and be fast, I’m like, ‘I didn’t practice up there (but) I need to run up there.’ I got in the wall and started in the rear and caught up in a three-wide wreck early (in the race). That was on the driver, not anyone else in 2010.”

But he admits it took some time before he could move on from that experience.

“I came off an eight-win season in 2010 and in 2011 I won one race and just kind of ran crappy,” Hamlin said. “It was definitely a hangover, letdown year from 2010. Then we kind of bounced back in 2012 (with five wins). … We had a good season and at that point I kind of let 2010 go.”

As for now, Hamlin is eager for the playoffs to begin. He won at Pocono in late July and followed that with a third-place finish at Watkins Glen, a runner-up result at Michigan, a win at Bristol, a 29th-place finish at Darlington after he was collected in a crash, and a sixth-place finish in a backup car last weekend at Indianapolis.

“We are not searching for speed, we are not searching for anything right now,” Hamlin said. “As long as we execute, we contend for wins every week and that is something that only a handful or less can say every week.”

Hamlin also likes that the series is heading back to several tracks for a second time this season. He notes that in the second time to tracks this season, he has finished first at Pocono, second at Michigan and first at Bristol.

3. Higher expectations

Ryan Blaney is in the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but he enters still seeking his first victory of the season, while teammates Brad Keselowski (three) and Joey Logano (two) each have multiple wins this year.

“I’d like to be doing better,” said Blaney, who has five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. “You want to be winning races with your teammates, right? I mean, your teammates winning races, you want to win races and you know, it sucks that we haven’t won a race yet this year. There’s a handful of them I wish we got back, but you just try to move forward and move on and try to do the best you can.

“Indy stunk how it kind of played out and ended there. But you definitely want to be doing better. Do I think that I’ve done the best job throughout this year and before this? No, I could do a lot better. So that’s kind of an ‘on me’ thing. So you just try to keep learning, keep getting better.

“You see your teammates winning and you want to be there just to prove that. You want to be part of the  show. You want to be in that group. You want to be in that winning group, and hopefully we can figure things out.”

Blaney says when he compares himself to Keselowski and Logano, “I feel like I don’t meet expectations. So that part stinks.

“I think Brad and Joey are two of the best guys out here, smartest guys, really great race car drivers and do a great job of figuring it out. And you just try to compare yourself to those guys. It’s hard compared to them because they’re so good and past champions. But I think if you try to meet that bar, and you kind of push yourself to be there, hopefully one day you do achieve that goal and get to where those guys are at.”

4. How many wins could Kyle Busch have?

Asked if he is better with handling frustration, regular-season champion Kyle Busch answered by alluding to this season and the four wins he has.

“No, I’m definitely not very good with frustrating moments,” said Busch, winless in his last 12 races. “It’s hard. You pour your life and soul into this and this is what you do and what you want to do and be successful at, and you want to go out here and prove and show people what they all hype up and talk about that, yes it’s true that I can be one of the best here and it’s frustrating when I’m not able to come out of races or seasons with the goals that you anticipate or the goals that you think you can achieve.

“It’s quite frustrating in that regard. This year for example, we’ve had four wins. We’ve been really good, we led the points …  you look back on it and we should have eight or nine wins.”

5. New mayor for Nashville

John Cooper defeated Mayor David Briley by more than a two-to-one margin Thursday to become the new mayor of Nashville, Tennessee.

Here is why that matters to NASCAR fans:

Once Cooper takes office (at a date to be determined) one of the many issues he’ll be tasked with is the effort by officials from Bristol Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc. to renovate Fairgrounds Speedway in hopes of attracting a NASCAR race.

With NASCAR seeking to announce the 2021 schedule around April 1, 2020, it leaves a little more than six months for Bristol officials to have an agreement with the mayor, get approval from the metro council and get approval from the fair board to begin construction on what has been billed as a $60 million project.

It would seem ambitious to think everything could be put into place for Nashville to be on the 2021 NASCAR schedule. If so, that could mean that the earliest NASCAR might race there would be 2022.

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