William Byron heads to Richmond chasing 3rd win of season

Just as he did last year, William Byron is setting a blistering pace to a NASCAR Cup Series season, but he has a strong collection of contenders who will be looking to dethrone him on Easter Sunday in Virginia’s capital.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver will seek his second consecutive victory and third in seven races when the series moves to Richmond Raceway for the Toyota Owners 400 on Sunday night.

Once again, the 26-year-old Charlotte native became the first multiple winner in NASCAR’s top series in a season.

In 2023, he posted consecutive victories during the first month of races, taking the checkers at Las Vegas and Phoenix.

It took him two more starts than that this season, as he won the season-opening Daytona 500 and then prevailed last Sunday in the season’s first road race, at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

The top three drivers in the point standings are winless — leader Martin Truex Jr., Ty Gibbs (five points back) and reigning series champion Ryan Blaney (nine points back) — but one of the five winners this season to keep an eye on might be the driver who nearly ran down Byron in the final laps at COTA, Christopher Bell.

Three weeks ago, the Oklahoma native racer triumphed at Phoenix Raceway, which has been on the schedule since 1988 but is now deemed a short track. Though winless at Richmond’s three-quarter-mile, D-shaped design, Bell has a strong record at the small venue.

In seven Cup starts, Bell has four top-five finishes and five top-10 results. With an average start of 17.7 and finish of 7.7, the 29-year-old has led 99 laps at RR but has never been first to the checkers.

“Richmond has been a really good track for me and that has a lot to do for the team I drive for,” said the Toyota driver. “Joe Gibbs Racing has been exceptional at Richmond Raceway. Unfortunately, the last race we had at Richmond I didn’t do very well at all (finishing 20th).

“So we need to put that behind us, but coming off of Phoenix, this is the next short track with the new rules package, so we’re really looking forward to seeing what we have. I think it’s going to be a good race for us.”

Maybe, but that might depend on whether he can avoid Kyle Busch.

The Cup Series’ active leader with six Richmond wins, Busch was spun by Bell and irate when he confronted his former JGR teammate with an extremely direct conversation that had almost no back and forth.

When Busch point-blank asked Bell if he had ever wrecked him and Bell replied no, the two-time series champion shot back, “Ok, well, that (stuff’s) coming.”

Bell said the intent to wreck the No. 8 Chevrolet was not there.

“KB is frustrated about what happened in Turn 1,” said the No. 20 Toyota standout. “But I had no intentions of turning him, and I’m sure we’ll talk it out before the next race.”

Busch’s last win at Richmond came on Sept. 22, 2018, a season in which he captured both Richmond races.