As Martin Truex Jr. cruised to his 4th win of the NASCAR season on Sunday at Sonoma, second year driver William Byron was dropping like a rock — finally bottoming out in the 19th position. Byron, who won the first stage of the race on Sunday, ended up on the wrong end of pit strategy in the final stage. It was a disappointing finish to a day that had started with him leading 20 laps and pulling away from Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott.
Or was it?
On some level, sure it was. However, Byron’s stage one win and his third place finish in stage two still allowed him to leave Sonoma with 36 points in his pocket, which is a great day at the office for a team fighting to stay on the right side of the playoff line. Chad Knaus’ strategy call allowed his No. 24 team to rack up the 5th most points on the day.
It’s something we’ve seen Knaus do recently with Byron. Knaus is opting for the sure thing and tossing away chances to win races in the process. We saw the team execute a similar strategy at Pocono, with Byron starting from the pole. He led most of the first stage, then chose not to pit before the planned stage break. Byron picked up nine points for finishing 2nd in the stage, then picked up another eight for finishing 3rd in stage two.
But Knaus sealed Byron’s ultimate fate in the process, sending him to mid-pack at a track that had already proved impossible to pass. He worked his way back to ninth by the end of the race, but the car was fast enough to win.
Instead of swinging for the fences with his young driver, Knaus seems content to hit singles for the time being. And we need to credit the No. 24 team for coming to the racetrack with enough speed to start up front, which has allowed them to carry out these plans. Byron has three poles on the season and six front row starting spots. Without that raw speed, Knaus wouldn’t be able to maximize these stages like he has.
It’s a fascinating situation to sort through, considering the reward for a race win is an automatic berth into the NASCAR Playoffs. At the same time, it’s tough to argue with the undeniable progress Byron has made through the points standings.
Byron sits 14th in the standings, a solid 28 points above Ryan Newman in the 16th place cutoff position. Oddly, Byron only has four top ten finishes to show for the season.
You could make the argument that Byron has had race winning speed at least twice now. He has a 9th and a 19th place finish to show for it, along with a bucket of free points. Knaus is clearly playing the big picture game here, but you’ve got to at least wonder about Byron’s feeling on the matter. Sitting back and willingly accepting mediocre finishes for stage points can’t be easy to swallow as a competitor.
For as much as NASCAR has tried to place an importance on winning races, in this case, the stages have actually diminished the thought of going for a race win, at least from a points perspective.
Knaus’ perspective is simple — these points are free and you can’t take them from him. For a team on the bubble, that’s a pretty easy call to make for the time being.