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      William Byron records first top-15 result of 2019 at Auto Club Speedway

      © 2019 Matthew T. Thacker / Hendrick Motorsports

      Start: 22nd
      Finish: 15th
      Driver standings: 19th

      Continuing the trend of making improvements every weekend, William Byron once again had another NASCAR Cup Series track-best qualifying effort, with his 22nd-place effort at Auto Club Speedway Friday afternoon. The driver of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 then went on to battle his way to a 15th-place finish, scoring his first top-15 finish of the 2019 season as well as tying his previous Cup Series track-best at the two-mile oval.

      © 2019 Logan Whitton

      “I’m glad we were able to make it back to the top-15 there at the end,” Byron said. “Today didn’t go how we wanted, and we definitely felt like we had a better car than we showed. Chad (Knaus) and the guys worked all day to try loosen the car up but it just wouldn’t turn like I needed. We’ve made progress as a team already this year and shortly we’ll have the results that reflect that.”

      When the green flag dropped Sunday afternoon for the final leg of the West Coast swing, Byron initially raced his way to just outside the top-10 running order within the first 10 laps. However, as the run continued, the Axalta Chevy began to run really tight, forcing Byron to slip back to 21st. Almost halfway through the first stage, green-flag pit stops began but crew chief Chad Knaus elected to keep the No. 24 on track longer allowing Byron to take the lead on Lap 31. The 21-year-old driver maintained the lead until Lap 33 when he came to pit road for four tires, fuel and a set of adjustments to aid in the handling of his Chevy Camaro ZL1. As pit stops cycled through and the stage continued, Byron reported that his car fired off a bit better than the last run but was still too tight. However, with four laps left in Stage 1, the caution came out allowing Byron to come to pit road for four tires, fuel and more adjustments to the Axalta Chevrolet. Lining up 19th for a one-lap dash to the stage break, Byron was forced to avoid an incident in front of him, relinquishing him to an 18th-place finish in Stage 1. To ensure he didn’t flat spot the tires, Byron came back down pit road for four tires, as well as for the No. 24 team to look for any potential damage.

      After getting the all-clear from his crew, Byron returned to the track and lined up in the 20th position for the start of Stage 2. Once again taking advantage of the restarts, Byron made his way into the top-10 running order within three laps. As the green-flag run ensued, Byron began fighting the handling of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 as it once again swung to the extreme tight side. Slipping back to 17th, Knaus called Byron down pit road under green as the leaders began to hit pit road as well for four tires, fuel and adjustments. Once pit stops cycled through fully, Byron found himself running 19th and remained there until the stage break, still fighting the handling on the No. 24. The Axalta team went to work under the break with another four-tire stop with major chassis adjustments.

      Restarting 17th on Lap 128, Byron’s handling woes hindered him from making any forward progress, forcing him to slide back to 19th. With 39 laps remaining in the 200-lap race, Byron came to pit road under green for a four-tire pit stop. However, before green-flag pit stops could fully cycle through, the caution came out on Lap 165, catching Byron one lap down in the 21st position. Fortunately when the leaders pit under yellow, Byron was able to take the “wave around,” putting himself back on the lead lap for the final 31 laps of the race. Despite still fighting a tight Axalta Chevrolet, Byron was able to find some speed in the closing laps and fight his way to a 15th-place finish to close out the West Coast swing.

      Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott led the four-car brigade, finishing 11th, followed by Byron in 15th, Jimmie Johnson in 17th and Alex Bowman in 21st.

      Jeff Gordon and William Byron (Part 3)
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      ALEX BOWMAN

      Start: 23rd
      Finish: 21st
      Driver standings: 16th

      Alex Bowman and the Nationwide team rolled off 23rd for the 400-mile event in Fontana on Sunday afternoon. The driver battled the handling of his No. 88 Camaro ZL1 early in the event. On Lap 11, Bowman reported that his car was tight, and he needed more front grip. Just 10 laps later, the driver bypassed his teammate for the 20th position. On Lap 28, crew chief Greg Ives called Bowman to pit road for four tires, fuel, an air pressure adjustment and a wedge adjustment. Once green flag pit stops cycled through, Bowman was scored in the 21st position.

      The caution came out on Lap 57 for debris and Bowman radioed to his Nationwide team that he felt like his car was coming to him at the end of that run. Under caution, the 25-year-old driver came to pit road for four tires and fuel. Two laps after taking the green flag, the caution was once again shown for a wreck in Turn 2 that was right in front of the Nationwide machine. Bowman was able to drive through the incident without receiving any damage. This caution marked the end of Stage 1 and Bowman finished 16th.

      Ives elected to bring Bowman back to pit road under the stage ending caution for four tires and fuel. After the team executed a quick four-tire stop, the team gained two positions on pit road and Bowman would restart 14th. Shortly after taking the green flag, the driver was working his way through the field and was scored inside the top 10. Within 20 laps, Bowman was scored in the ninth position. On Lap 91, Ives called the driver to pit road for a scheduled four-tire stop. Following a cycle of green-flag pit stops, Bowman remained inside the top 15, though he lost two positions before the green-checkered flag waved to finish Stage 2 in 17th.

      Following that long green flag run, Bowman reported that his car was too tight on the previous run. Ives brought the Nationwide machine to pit road for four tires, fuel and a few adjustments to help the car’s handling. Once Bowman got back on track, he remained quiet on the radio and set his eyes forward. On Lap 143, the Nationwide Camaro ZL1 was scored in the 19th position and less than 20 laps later, Ives called Bowman to pit road. During the scheduled green flag stop on Lap 160, the team changed four tires and added fuel. The caution came out shortly after Bowman returned to the track, putting the team one lap down. Under this caution, Ives radioed to Bowman that they would take the wave around.

      While under caution, Bowman radioed to the team that his car was still tight and felt something was off. The driver reassured the team that he knew they were working hard to make changes in the right direction. When the field went back green, Bowman was scored in the 20th position.

      At the conclusion of the 200-lap event, Bowman would cross the line 21st. The driver is scored in the 16th position in the NASCAR Cup Series standings, now 127 markers behind the leader.

      Alex Bowman: “We had a rough day today. Our car wasn’t where we needed it to be. We started off tight and Greg (Ives) and the guys made some changes that seemed to help in the beginning, but just went the other direction halfway through the race. We have some work to do. If there is a team that can do it, I know it is my Nationwide team. It has been a long west coast swing and we will go back to the shop this week and figure out how we can improve.”

      Kyle Busch took the checkered flag for the second straight week. Next up is the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 24.

      Via Hendrick Motorsports