How NASCAR race at Austin was won on Lap 13

There was masterful late race driving too

NASCAR: EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix
Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In hindsight, maybe the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix was won and lost on Lap 13.

William Byron was leading the race, but expected to jump the stage break, meaning he would give up stage points in exchange for track position at the start of each stage. Christopher Bell, running in third, was told by crew chief Adam Stevens to pit only if he didn’t think they could win the stage.

Remember, stage wins are valuable beyond measure as they come with a playoff point applied towards champion seeding for the final 10 races. That’s to say nothing of the 10 championship points.

But, of course, winning races is everything in NASCAR and also comes with five playoff points so road course races are about the cost-benefit analysis for winning races or scoring stages points. With stage breaks, its near-universally an either-or proposition.

Byron pit on Lap 13 and drug second running Ty Gibbs with him and Bell stayed out to win the stage. What that meant, when the stage break happened, is that Bell would eventually have to pit off the cycle of Byron and Gibbs.

There was a pro and con to that, too.

Bell opted to stay out for the restart and pit several laps into the second stage, fully committing to a two-stop strategy and its actually one that Rudy Fugle wanted to do all week but the track position was too valuable to give up with what looked like the best car in the garage.

“I knew we wouldn’t be in a bad spot to short the stages,” Fugle said. “Kind of got into that Bell was going to do the opposite basically of us two. If he could get a stage win and two-stop it, he was going to do it.

“Then they had a bad pit stop. It took a while to get fuel in the car, and that really put him back. He did an amazing job. That team did an amazing job coming back through the field. It still worked out for us, though, thankfully.”

Byron made his final stop with 23 to go and Bell made his final stop with 20 to go.

On one hand, tire wear was so minimal that maybe that wasn’t the difference. Maybe Bell and the 20 car was just that good, but he began to knock off a second a lap off Byron over the final 15 laps.

4 …

You get the point.

But there were two other cars between them in the form of Alex Bowman and Ty Gibbs and the latter, a Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, didn’t make it easy and the margin of victory was ultimately 0.69 seconds.

Bell was there.

“We took the points in stage 1 and we didn’t see another caution,” Bell said. “We talked about it all week, if we were going to jump the stages or not and we decided, if we had a chance to win the stages, we would take the points and ultimately, I think that’s why we didn’t win.”

Gibbs did concede that he held him up a little, just racing hard, and anything more than what he did would have been too much, even.

“He’s my teammate, and he has new tires on and caught me from like a whole straightaway back,” Gibbs said. “I feel like if I raced him that hard, it would have been kind of mean. I tried to let him by when he got to me, and it was just what it was.”

In real time, Byron thought Fugle was right about the two-stop strategy after all because based on pace, Bell was faster.

He had a big gap but he was having to push too because that lead would have shrunk even more if he was too conservative.

“Brakes were getting pretty hot, so I was pushing pretty hard,” he said. “Yeah, I mean, it’s just a lot of laps around here. I don’t know, four miles or whatever it is…

“You’re wondering what is going to happen. It’s easy to fall out of the rhythm because of that. This track doesn’t flow a lot. It’s very technical. You go from a very technical S-section, a hard-braking zone, another hard-braking zone. It’s not similar to anywhere we go, so I feel like it’s easy to get out of rhythm. That’s what I noticed today.”

And despite it all, if there was one more lap, maybe it’s a different conversation.

“It seems like another lap, and I would have got there for sure with our DEWALT Camry,” Bell said. “Passing was going to be a little more difficult, and I needed him to make a mistake.”

Ultimately, the race was won because no such error was forced.

“Christopher is really good,” Byron said. “It seems like when he gets a taste of the win, at the end he turns it up. I knew that last lap he was going to be pushing hard. Rudy gave me an idea of how much gap I had. I kind of did the math in my head coming off of turn one. If I don’t mess up, I think I’m going to be fine. But yeah, he was pushing hard.”

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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