Byron, the youngest of the Championship 4 drivers at 25 years old and with his first opportunity to win a title, won the pole for Sunday’s season finale in Saturday’s qualifying session at Phoenix Raceway.
That alone appeared to be a good sign. In the three previous seasons the championship race had been held at Phoenix, the pole winner had gone on to win the series title.
Byron took advantage early in Sunday’s race, leading all 60 laps and winning Stage 1 and remained out front until he was run down by Kevin Harvick for the lead on lap 93 of 312.
After that, however, while Byron remained up front and battling his fellow title contenders for the remainder of the race, he led just three more laps, the last time on lap 277. He ended up fourth in the race and third among the Championship 4 contenders.
“Once the track rubbered in, we got really tight,” Byron said. “Especially when we lost the lead on track, we just had a big balance shift and got tight back in second through fifth, just couldn’t gain a lot of speed through (Turns) 1 and 2, just kind of having to really over-slow the car, get it to the bottom.
“That’s all we had there. Just really proud of our team, great season. It stinks to come up short. I’d like to think we’re going to be back in this position and we’re going to have more shots at it.”
The 2023 season was a breakout one for Byron, who drives the No. 24 Chevrolet Hendrick Motorsports. He led the series with six wins, led the second-most laps and tied for the most top-five finishes (15) and won four poles.
While he won the spring race at Phoenix, Byron had had some difficulty on the series’ shorter tracks with his best finish a ninth at Bristol, Tenn., in September.
“We just got to keep working on the short track program for us. It was definitely the tough part of our season,” Byron said. “I felt like we brought a good car this weekend. Really until the track kind of changed, I thought we were in the game.
“Yeah, that was just all we had there.”
A disappointing end to an impressive year
Considering the strength of his season and how he and his team started Sunday’s race, Byron admitted Sunday’s finish was “a bit of a letdown.”
“As soon as we got into Stage 2, we were trying to figure out how do we manage what we have, maybe make it a little bit better if we can. But we just need more on the short tracks,” he said. “We just struggled as a team…