For the second straight week, a surprise late caution gave William Byron the opportunity to pull out a NASCAR Cup Series victory. The wild finish at Phoenix Raceway, sparked by Harrison Burton's blown tire, gave Byron the first back-to-back victories of his Cup career.
Without it? The race would have been a yawner, Kevin Harvick holding a comfortable lead after accomplishing the unthinkable during the final stage: passing Kyle Larson for the lead under green-flag conditions. That was the only real action of the day out front, as it took a nine-race winner at Phoenix to learn the trick of passing on this one-mile oval. Pit stop cycles and the frantic final restart accounted for the rest of the race's 10 lead changes, not enough to spark continued excitement during a three-hour event.
It's a concerning start after NASCAR's offseason tweaks reduced spoiler height, among other adjustments that should have jumpstarted the action at the Next Gen's Achilles Heel: smaller tracks. Instead, a 2-inch spoiler made the cars too difficult to handle:
- Drivers were sliding around all over the place while the aerodynamics of "dirty air" stalled their momentum the minute they closed in on another car.
- Clean air in front meant Byron and Kyle Larson led 265 of 317 laps, often putting five seconds on the field during long green-flag runs until Harvick's team figured it out during the final stage.
Burton's crash led to the crazy finish a late caution always gives NASCAR, pit strategy getting Larson and Byron back out front with two-tire stops to settle the victory between themselves.
"That one is not fun to swallow," Harvick explained after defending a decision to go for four tires, leaving him fighting for fifth. "We had a great car and didn't need that caution at the end... just hate missing an opportunity when you have a car that strong."
The unexpecting ending could mask the bigger competitive problem for those just seeing the highlights this Monday: NASCAR's three-race west coast swing produced an average of 17 lead changes, down 26% year-to-year as the sport deals with the emerging reality of a sophomore slump for the Next Gen car.
Don't tell that to Byron, enjoying success at Hendrick Motorsports while their biggest star, Chase Elliott, is sidelined for six weeks after breaking his tibia in a snowboarding accident. But even the winner acknowledged the reality of how unappealing the conditions were during most of the day at Phoenix.
"We need to kind of objectively look at, was this a better race or not," Byron said. "That's really what it comes down to. From my standpoint, yeah, it tests me a lot more, but there's still some element we have to figure out with how tight the cars are."
Green: Alex Bowman -- Looks like Bowman is fully recovered from last fall's concussion suffered in a hard crash at Texas Motor Speedway. He's got four straight top-10 finishes to start a season for the first time in his Cup career, a new contract extension with Hendrick through 2026 and leads the point standings by three over Harvick. Honorable mention goes to Josh Berry, earning his first top-10 Cup finish in just the second race substituting for Elliott in Hendrick's No. 9 Chevrolet.
Yellow: Kyle Larson -- Four races in, the 2021 Cup champ is still winless, but has reemerged as a competitive force. His 270 laps led through four weeks roughly matches his total through the entire first half of 2022. The only question is whether missed opportunities, two weeks in a row, will come back to haunt Larson with a win nearly becoming a playoff prerequisite in the Next Gen era.
Red: Aric Almirola -- Remember when Almirola was going to retire at the end of the 2022 Cup season before changing his mind? Well 2023 has left him paying the price. In four races, he's failed to finish twice and wrecked in the other two events, failing to post a top-15 result. He's 26th in the standings and has already fallen 36 points behind the final playoff spot.
Speeding Ticket: Rodney Childers' four-tire call -- Kevin Harvick did the right thing upon exiting his car at Phoenix, defending his crew's decision to go for fresh ones while giving up track position.
"It's what I would have done," Harvick said. "I'd always rather be on offense."
That may be their philosophy after nearly a decade together. But there's no mistaking how the call kept Harvick from winning the race. Too many people went for two instead, quicker stops that knocked him back from first to seventh for the final two restarts. I would have trusted the most accomplished driver in Phoenix Raceway history to hold them off for two laps at a track where the tires weren't falling off quite as much as Fontana or Las Vegas.
Slim pickings this week during a clean Cup race, so we'll go with AJ Allmendinger's misfortune. Wrecking during Overtime a second straight week, his incident also collected both NASCAR Rookie of the Year candidates this year: Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs.
It's been a less-than-ideal start for the trio. Gragson and Gibbs have yet to score top-15 finishes in their rides while Allmendinger has now crashed three times since a sixth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500.