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      Alex Bowman and William Byron score top-10 finishes in playoff opener

      © 2019 Russell LaBounty / NKP

      ALEX BOWMAN

      Start: 19th
      Finish: 6th
      Points to cutoff: +10

      Alex Bowman and the No. 88 Nationwide team rolled off 19th for Sunday afternoon’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Quickly after taking the green flag, Bowman was battling a tight-handling Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. By Lap 8, the team was scored in the 27th position. The 26-year-old driver relayed to the Nationwide team on Lap 23 that his car’s exit off Turn 4 wasn’t good. On Lap 40, crew chief Greg Ives called Bowman to pit road under green for four tires, fuel and an adjustment to help the car’s handling. Seven laps after pitting, the driver relayed that his car was definitely better.

      With 20 laps to go in the first stage, Bowman was scored in the 18th position. At the conclusion of Stage 1, the driver gained three positions to cross the line 15th. The driver radioed to the team that his car lost a lot of rear stability on that previous run. Ives called the driver to pit road for four tires, fuel and an air pressure adjustment under yellow. As Stage 2 got underway, the Nationwide team restarted 12th. On Lap 112, Bowman radioed to the team that his car was loose in and loose off. Just 10 laps later, the team came to pit road for a green-flag pit stop for four tires and fuel. As the pit stops cycled through, Bowman found himself inside the top 10.

      © 2019 Nigel Kinrade / NKP

      On Lap 155, Bowman relayed that his car was a little free everywhere but was the best that it had felt all race. Earning valuable stage points, Bowman crossed the line 10th at the conclusion of Stage 2. Under the stage-ending caution, the driver visited pit road for four tires, fuel and an air pressure adjustment. After a quick stop, the Nationwide team gained five positions on pit road setting the driver up for a fifth place starting position for the final stage.

      Shortly after taking the green for the final stage, Bowman found himself battling for fourth on Lap 173. The caution was shown on Lap 180 for a spin on track and Bowman relayed that his car was free on entry, but still pretty good. Ives elected to bring the No. 88 machine to pit road for four tires and fuel. Bowman restarted sixth on Lap 185 and was the second car to have four fresh tires on the restart. Just a few laps after taking the green flag, the caution was shown once again. Sitting in the fifth position, Ives made the call for the team to remain on track.

      By Lap 197, the Tucson, Arizona, native found himself in the fourth position. Bowman radioed to Ives on Lap 208 that his car was a little free into the center and tightened up on exit. Just 10 laps later, the driver came back on the radio and said that the car was getting tighter and tighter the longer he ran. On Lap 230, Ives called the Nationwide team to pit road for the final green flag pit stop of the evening. The team changed four tires and added race fuel and once the green-flag stops cycled through on Lap 246, Bowman was in 11th.

      Bowman had his eyes set out front and was making gains on track. At the conclusion of the 267-lap event, Bowman crossed the line sixth. The driver sits 11th in the NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings, now 45 markers behind the leader.

      Alex Bowman: “We didn’t fire off very good. As the race ran, we got our car much better. I think kind of the in between from day to night was the best we were. When it grouped up there at the end, it helped out some of the other cars. But, proud of my guys. I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth. The racing is tough. You just get blocked, guys changing lanes. It’s just super frustrating, but everybody has to do it. That’s just part of it. Overall, it wasn’t too bad of a day.”

      © 2019 Rusty Jarrett / NKP

      WILLIAM BYRON

      Start: 14th
      Finish: 7th
      Points to cutoff: +13

      Opening the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs by securing crucial stage points in both stages of Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, William Byron was forced to rally late in the race from a flat left rear tire that mired him deep in traffic. Able to rebound quickly, the driver of the No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 raced his way back to a seventh-place finish when the checkered flag flew – his 10th top-10 finish of 2019.

      Showing speed as soon as the Liberty University Chevy hit the track for practice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Byron went on to secure a track-best qualifying effort of 14th Saturday afternoon. When the green flag waved on Sunday for the 267-lap event, Byron made his way to just outside the top 10 before relaying that his No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was too tight. As the run ensued and the leaders began to pit under green, Byron moved up to the third position before crew chief Chad Knaus called his driver down pit road as well on Lap 43 for four tires, fuel and an air pressure adjustment. Returning to the track as green flag pit stops continued to cycle through, the sophomore driver continued his march to the front of the field making it up to the seventh position by the time the green checkered flag flew signaling the end of Stage 1. Still fighting a tight Liberty University Chevy, Byron came to pit road under the stage break for four tires, fuel and further adjustments.

      After a fast pit stop by the No. 24 team, Byron lined up fourth for the start of Stage 2 on Lap 87 but quickly nabbed the second spot after the first lap back to green-flag racing. Byron continued to hold down the second position until the halfway point in the stage but lost a couple positions as the run continued due to still fighting a tight Liberty University Chevy. Knaus made the call for Byron to pit a couple laps earlier than planned, hitting pit road under green on Lap 121. Returning to the track after another four-tire pit stop, the Charlotte, North Carolina, native found himself running sixth and continued to hold that position until the end of Stage 2. While under yellow flag conditions for the end of the stage, Byron once again came down pit road for four tires, fuel and further adjustments to aid in loosening up his Liberty University Chevy.

      © 2019 Russell LaBounty / NKP

      Restarting eighth, another competitor made contact with Byron, causing a left rear tire rub on the No. 24. Initially trying to ride it out with the smoke disappearing, Byron made it one more lap before he radioed that the left rear tire was flat and ultimately spun out on Lap 182 while trying to come to pit road for fresh tires. Trying to remain on the lead lap, Byron came down pit road multiple times under the caution, first for two left-side tires and then again for four tires, fuel and damage repairs. Able to remain on the lead lap, Byron was scored 18th but had to restart at the tail end of the longest line due to pitting too early. However, just as soon as the field got the green flag, the yellow was back out for an on-track incident. Reporting that he had a slight vibration since the last pit stop, Byron once again came down pit road for four fresh tires and for one last glance at the left rear fender damage. Getting the all-clear from his Liberty University crew, Byron went to work making up as much track position as possible when the field went back to green. Within 15 laps, Byron was knocking on the door of the top 10 and ultimately the top five just a handful of laps later. As the final set of green flag pit stops began to cycle through, Knaus made the strategy call for the No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to pit later in the sequence allowing Byron to take over the lead before pitting himself on Lap 235 for right-side tires and fuel only. As the rest of the pit stops cycled through, Byron found himself in the 10th position with 32 laps remaining. Continuing his fight back to the front, Byron raced his way through traffic to pick up three more positions in the closing laps, taking the checkered flag in the seventh position – a track-best finish for Byron at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

      Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott led the four-car contingent to the stripe with a fourth-place finish followed by Bowman in sixth and Byron in seventh. Jimmie Johnson finished just shy of the top-10 in the 11th position.

      William Byron: “We just had to recover. I don’t really know what happened there. I was just running on the wall on the back straightaway and got hit in the left rear. I thought the tire was going to last and hold up. It cleared the fender for a while … but it had a cut in it already. That was a big bummer. We were really fortunate that the caution came out when we spun. That was really good for us. Overall, we were able to rally to a seventh-place finish. So, that’s not bad.

      “It was crazy. You think about all of the things that can go wrong in a race. It’s tough, you have to really manage the whole race and recover from things that happen. It seemed like every car has something that happened during this race, so you just have to recover from it.”

      How did you compose yourself in that situation?
      Yeah, I was just really frustrated. We had a great day going. We were just racing there and I didn’t really expect that to happen. But we had to recover and rebound from it, which we did, so that was good.”

      The Hendrick cars were pretty strong today. Where is your confidence level going into the last nine races? 
      “Yeah, it was good. I feel like 1.5-mile tracks, at least for us, have been a little bit of a struggle. So, it’s good to get a top-10 finish, rally, and have a good run going into Richmond.”

      Via Hendrick Motorsports