William Byron opens NASCAR’s next round of playoffs as title favorite


Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — William Byron returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the betting favorite to win the Cup title as the round of eight of NASCAR’s playoffs opens.

He’s certainly in great shape with a series-high six victories this season, and his first win of the year came at Las Vegas back in March. A win on Sunday would lock him into the title-deciding championship finale and give him the next two weeks to prepare — the same model Joey Logano used a year ago by winning at Las Vegas and then winning the title at Phoenix.

Byron doesn’t care what the oddsmakers say about his chances next month of hoisting his first Cup championship trophy and on Saturday wouldn’t declare himself the favorite.

“I don’t know. That’s for you guys to decide,” Byron said. “I just go out there and drive. For me, it’s one step at a time, it really is. Take it one step at a time in each race of this round. I’m not looking too far ahead, honestly.”

It’s a tough field to evaluate, with just two former champions among the final eight, and only half the field has even made it to the championship round. Kyle Larson is seeking a second Cup title in three years while Martin Truex Jr. is looking to add to his 2017 championship.

Truex was the regular-season champion but has had a horrible postseason.  He doesn’t have a finish higher than 17th through the first six playoff races, and Truex goes into Las Vegas with seven consecutive finishes outside the top 15, his worst streak since 2009.

He made it to the round of eight based only on all the bonus points he earned during the regular season.

“I didn’t create the system. We used it to our advantage,” Truex said. “That won’t get us through the next [round]. The next one, you’ve got to be running up front. Need to turn it up and we need to figure it out quickly.”

His Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell have been far better in the postseason, and both have been to the championship round.  Hamlin has been to five title races and is considered the greatest NASCAR driver to never win a Cup title.

But Hamlin believes this is his year, and his swagger has hit a new high: Hamlin attended a Travis Scott concert in North Carolina this week wearing a Michael Jordan and singer J Balvin-logoed firesuit that belonged to Tyler Reddick.

Hamlin is co-owner of 23XI Racing alongside Jordan, and Jordan’s intensity has rubbed off on the three-time Daytona 500 winner.

“He’s got such a ferocity,” Hamlin said. “He’s a person not trying to be anyone’s friend out there. He’s trying to do what’s best for him and best for his team. I think you’ve seen that with my driving style lately, I’ve shifted into the more selfish mode.”

Reddick, who is in the round of eight for the first time in his career and in his first season with 23XI, gives Toyota 50% of the field. Ford is represented by Chris Buescher and Ryan Blaney, who have never reached the championship finale, and Chevrolet has the Hendrick Motorsports contingent of Byron and Larson.

Reddick believes he’s got as good a chance as any driver to make the championship race.

“If you do everything right, you can get there,” Reddick said. “I think the way that we’ve been scoring points here in the playoffs, we have paths.”

A win in any of the next three races earns an automatic berth into the championship race. The remaining spots are filled based on points standings.

Bell put his Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing on the pole for Sunday’s race by bumping Larson from the top starting spot.

Bell turned a lap at 186.335 mph to better the Chevrolet of Larson, which went 186.271. It is the sixth pole of the season for Bell.

Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Byron qualified third and was followed by Truex of Joe Gibbs Racing and Buescher of RFK Racing as playoff contenders took the top five spots.

Kyle Busch, who was eliminated from title contention last week, qualified sixth at his home track. He was followed by Bubba Wallace, who also was eliminated last week.

Reddick qualified seventh and was followed by Logano and Ross Chastain, who finished 1-2 in the championship last year but have both been eliminated from the playoffs.

Blaney of Team Penske qualified 12th and Hamlin was the lowest qualifying playoff driver at 15th.

Carson Hocevar will move into a full-time Cup Series ride next season when he replaces Ty Dillon in the No. 77 Chevrolet at Spire Motorsports.

The 20-year-old Hocevar has six Cup starts this season, one for Spire and five for Legacy Motor Club. His best finish was 11th at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“Anybody in my position wants to be a Cup Series driver,” Hocevar said. “That’s what you dream about when you’re young. You want to race on Sundays. So my opportunity to run a few times this year — to run on Sunday and get ready — I feel more than prepared to get in the No. 77 car with Spire.”

Hocevar currently is in the Truck Series playoffs.

He will be part of a Spire lineup next year with Corey LaJoie and Zane Smith.

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