NASCAR with another surprise winner; headed to Las Vegas this week

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William Byron adjusts his cap as he celebrates after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — After years of seeing a handful of drivers — the same guys, really — dominate NASCAR’s top level nearly every week, the Cup Series is experiencing a little parity to start the season.

It’s a welcome sight for some. Others hope it’s a fleeting moment.

William Byron was the third surprise winner through three races this season with his victory Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Byron joined Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell as unlikely winners to start this season.

Byron controlled most of the final two stages at Homestead to win for the second time in 111 Cup starts. His first one came at Daytona last August and landed him one of the final spots in the playoffs.

No one saw that one coming.

Few had this one on the radar, either.

Byron entered the weekend as a 28-1 shot to win a race many expected would provide a return to normal for the racing series. Instead, McDowell and Bell have company in the relatively odd group of 2021 winners and drivers who have locked up postseason spots.

“A lot of people obviously made some good decisions on how to get better,” said 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr., who finished third. “The box we have to work is so small … the rules are the rules and they haven’t changed in a while. The smaller teams get to catch up.”

Truex was quick to point out that he still believes the top teams — the heavyweights like himself, so to speak — will find their way back to the top sooner rather than later.

But the first three races have provided plenty of eyebrow-raising moments. Tyler Reddick was second Sunday, nearly 3 seconds behind Byron. McDowell had his third straight top-10 finish. Chris Buescher ran up front for the first part of the race.

“It definitely has closed the gap,” McDowell said.

McDowell and Bell were first-time winners to open the season. This rare run already has tightened the playoff race less than a month into NASCAR’s long season. A victory earns an automatic berth, and it’s unusual to have multiple unique winners in a season.

Few could have predicted this trio would have put a squeeze on some of NASCAR’s top teams. Two-time series champion Kyle Busch currently sits below the top 16 in the standings, as do Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney and Aric Almirola – all playoff qualifiers a year ago.

Byron hardly qualifies as a big a shocker as the previous two because he drives the famed No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports. But he also hadn’t exactly been a regular in victory lane.

Then again, those inside the Hendrick organization had a feeling he could be in for something big this season since he reunited with former crew chief Rudy Fugle.

“That guy has been huge for my career,” Byron said. “He’s the reason I’m here and I’m just glad we could get him. … We really think the same way.”

They had their best year together while running the Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016, even winning at Homestead.

When Byron’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus, moved up at Hendrick Motorsports, Rick Hendrick hired Fugle and paired him with Byron. It was a rare move for Hendrick, who typically grooms his crew chiefs from within the organization.

Fugle spent eight years at KBM and led the trucks program to two driver championships and five owner titles. His trucks won 28 races, seven with Byron behind the wheel.

“He knows how to push my buttons and get me motivated,” Byron said. “Obviously, you have to back it up with results. Results come when you have people like that to work with.”

Buescher dominated the race early, winning the opening stage (the second stage win of his career). The Roush Fenway Racing driver led five times for a total of 57 laps, but he started to fade “when as sunset neared. Buescher dropped from sixth to 23 after a restart early in the final stage.

“It’s a step in the right direction for us,” Buescher said.

Byron took over from there and left some of the biggest names playing catchup for the first time in years.

“It’s tough because there’s not a whole lot you can do right now,” Truex said.

CREW MEMBER CLEARED

A tire carrier for the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota was cleared to participate in Sunday’s race after getting clipped on pit road a day earlier.

Josh Shipplett complained of rib soreness after Xfinity Series driver Daniel Hemric overshot his pit stall and hit one of the right-side tires Shipplett was carrying during an early pit stop. The contact knocked Shipplett to the ground. He ended up getting X-rays, which were negative, and was cleared to work the Cup Series event.

BET PAID

Retired driver and current Fox Sports racing analyst Clint Bowyer wore a Tom Brady jersey during the pregame show to pay off a Super Bowl bet with former Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola, a Tampa native. Bowyer is from Kansas and is a huge Chiefs fan. He jokingly tossed a replica Lombardi Trophy to the asphalt in disgust for his attire.

UP NEXT

The series heads west for a two-week stretch, beginning with the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway next Sunday. Joey Logano is the defending race winner.

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