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In fact, Byron said Saturday, there's even more on the line. Drivers of the Hendrick Chevrolets want to show the strong start to the season is not the result of illegally manipulating NASCAR's rules.
NASCAR slammed Hendrick Motorsports on Wednesday with the largest combined fine on one team in series history for allegedly modifying louvers, which direct air through the hoods of cars. The penalty included a combined $400,000 in fines — $100,000 to each of its four crew chiefs — plus four-race suspensions for the crew chiefs — Byron's, Kyle Larson's and Alex Bowman's included.
Those suspensions begin with Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Hendrick is appealing the penalties, which also affected the drivers by losing 100 regular-season points and 10 playoffs points.
Asked if the penalties provide more motivation for the team this week, Byron said: "Absolutely. I really get excited about coming to the race track right now.
“If anything it just shows that we’re not there yet and we have more to prove and we have more to accomplish. That’s a dangerous thing, right?”
Byron qualified 11th on Saturday, while Ford drivers, led by Joey Logano, took the top eight spots. Larson qualified ninth and Bowman was 15th.
Byron won last year's spring race in Atlanta while Hendrick teammate and home-state favorite Chase Elliott was the winner in July. Josh Berry, 21st in qualifying on Saturday, is the fill-in driver while Elliott recovers from a broken tibia suffered while snowboarding in Colorado last month.
NASCAR also penalized Denny Hamlin 25 points and a $50,000 fine for intentionally wrecking Ross Chastain on last week's final lap at Phoenix. Hamlin posted on his Twitter account that he plans to appeal the penalties, which came after he acknowledged on his podcast his intent to wreck Chastain.
Hamlin tweeted the contact with Chastain was “common, hard racing.”
Hamlin said Saturday he'll continue to tell the truth despite many believing it was his admission, not his action, that brought on the penalties.
“I'm always going to continue to be me,” Hamlin said, adding he likes the idea of inviting Chastain to join him on the podcast.
“It'd be good to have an open, honest conversation,” he said, adding the two have talked. Hamlin said he believes the dispute with Chastain has been settled and won't continue on the track.
When asked why he believes the feud is over, Hamlin said “just taking each other's word.”
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In an outcome that was similar to Hendrick drivers qualifying in the top three spots to open the season in Daytona, Team Penske had the three fastest qualifiers for Sunday. Logano took the pole with a speed of 177.374 mph, followed by Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney.
“I’m hoping it’s transferrable to the race,” Logano said of Ford's dominance in qualifying. “... This is kind of our wheelhouse when you come to superspeedways.”
Logano is from Middletown, Connecticut, and said he'll always consider the NASCAR track in Loudon, New Hampshire, to be his home track.
But Logano's family moved to Georgia when he was a child. So, to him, Atlanta Motor Speedway — where he competed in Legends races while dreaming of driving on the big track — is his second home.
“To me it’s always a dream to win on this race track,” he said.
After rain Friday wiped out qualifying for Saturday’s NASCAR truck and Xfinity races, temperatures were in the 40s for Cup qualifying. The first driver on the tack, B.J. McLeod, immediately lost control of his Chevrolet, leading to a spin that challenged the theory a cool track would generate more grip for tires.
“It probably was a little bit more interesting than a lot of us expected with cars spinning out and hitting the wall,” Logano said. “Nobody really knows what they have for handling yet.”
Chad Knaus, vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports, said Friday that his team was not trying to work outside the rules. Knaus described the louvers as “a component we’ve all come to the conclusion it is not correct and we’ve all tried to work ... to get it fixed because we’ve done that with other parts.”
Knaus said all NASCAR teams have worked together on the Next Gen cars, which debuted in the Cup Series in 2022.
“That’s the thing I think we’ve all prided ourselves on in the garage is that there’s been a tremendous amount of give and take as we’ve tried to learn how to race this car and work together,” Knaus said.
Larson is a 19-2 favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Blaney, Byron and Logano are next at 10-1.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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