SONOMA, Calif. – Nobody likes a backseat driver, but not all passengers are seven-time championship winning crew chiefs.
Three of Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers – William Byron, Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson — spun laps this week at Pahrump, Nevada’s Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch, in preparation for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Sonoma Raceway. Each driver’s crew chief was on hand to pore over the data, but it was Byron’s pit boss, Chad Knaus, who actually took it to the next level and rode shotgun with his driver to get a better feel for what his sophomore talent is looking for.
“Communication’s getting better and more up front,” Byron said Friday at Sonoma. “Got a chance to take Chad out on the track and that was really fun. I think that’s going to help us this weekend — to kind of be able to relate to what’s going on and keep trying to improve.”
Turns out, “really fun” for the 21-year-old means making his crew chief – more than double his age at 47 – hang on for dear life.
“Every time we’d go through the braking zone, his head would fall forward and hit the dash. I liked that part,” Byron joked. “I think I probably ran my fastest lap with him in the car. It was fun, I really enjoyed it. …
“He seemed all right. He got really quiet, but seemed OK. He definitely got quiet so I wasn’t sure if he was getting sick.”
With Sonoma being a place where one of the three of Hendrick drivers could punch a ticket to the NASCAR Playoffs – Chase Elliott is already provisionally in via his Talladega win — the trio wanted to turn some laps at Spring Mountain before heading farther west to wine country.
Former road course ace Ron Fellows provided help, and they ran nose-to-tail for about 100 laps, finishing up by analyzing a multitude of data, primarily throttle and brake specs.
It was a text — ‘Hey, I want to get out there’ — from Knaus to Byron midway through the session, however, that could give the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet the edge he needs come Sunday.
“We stopped and he got in the passenger seat and really he just wants to learn what the car feels like and what I’m asking the car to do and how I want the car to work really well,” said Byron, currently 14th in points. “It’s helped us this weekend, because we know exactly where we want our car to perform well.”
Not all the laps were thrill rides, however, as Byron took the time to walk Knaus through the variable-length course corner-by-corner to explain what he was looking for.
“We would kind of run through laps and then we’d slow down and talk about them in each corner and kind of go through exactly what I felt like in each corner. I thought it was really, really good for us to do that. I think it’s just going to help make it more relatable for him when we’re talking about the car. He even admitted that just understanding what makes speed and what’s going to make us successful.”
The pairing was always going to feel odd to outsiders in the early going given just how long Knaus was paired with “Seven-Time” – same goes for the duo of Johnson and his new guy in Kevin Meendering – but it’s really starting to pay dividends as they settle in.
After struggling to maintain any kind of consistency in his rookie season last year en route to a 23rd-place points finish, Byron has bettered his average finish by nea
rly seven spots (22.1 to 15.7) and currently sits inside the provisional playoff field. The driver has also put his No. 24 Chevy out in front of the field for five straight races – the first time he’s led laps in five straight in any national series since 2016 in Gander Trucks. Byron also has started on the pole in two of the last three races.
This week’s laps at Spring Mountain are just the latest instance of the pair working on improving their communication – something Knaus and Johnson really honed after a rocky start, and that arguably helped propel them to their unprecedented run of five straight and seven total titles.
“He’s really open and honest with me about what we’re going to face when we get here,” Byron said. “He always asks me what he can do to help or what things can help me. I’ve been surprised at how vocal he’s been and how much we communicate throughout the week. Things like that I think are all good for us.
“I’ve been around him for a year now, in the debriefs and in the weekends and knowing how he worked with Jimmie and his team. I feel like there wasn’t much of a surprise (to how he is), honestly. He’s very direct, so you don’t have to worry about whether he’s trying to send you a message in a certain way or he’s trying to blow you off or whatever. He’ll tell you if you’re doing something wrong.”
As one of the youngest drivers in the series, Byron will still do some things wrong, of course – but he’s been doing a lot more right lately, and Knaus’ guidance is a key part in that development.
For more NASCAR coverge, follow on NASCAR.com.