Last year at this time it was iffy as to whether Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron would even make the NASCAR Playoffs. However, a win in the regular season finale at the Daytona International Speedway assured the Charlotte, NC native of a place among the sixteen drivers who would enter the final stretch of races with a chance to ultimately be crowned as the NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Byron would see his title hopes dashed quickly, however, after he was eliminated from contention at the end of the first round in 2020 ultimately finishing 14th in the final series rundown.
This season, Byron is in a far more comfortable position as the regular season draws to a close. A victory in the third race of the 2021 season at the Homestead-Miami Speedway locked the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet into the Playoffs and has allowed his team to place more of its focus on making a strong run at the title.
Indeed, following that early season win, Byron and crew chief Rudy Fugle have put emphasis on getting ready for the Playoffs. The Homestead race set in motion a streak of eleven consecutive top-10 finishes for this team, but perhaps more importantly, the driver and his first year pit boss(at the Cup level) have been building a notebook for the upcoming title chase.
“I think the regular season kind of has a feel of its own because you’re constantly trying to win to get more bonus points,” Byron pointed out in a recent NASCAR Media availability. “Everyone’s trying to chase the bonus points because it’s such a big deal and that’s kind of the big factor in the regular season. But in the grand scheme of things, the difference in five points in the Playoffs is important but you’ve just got to go out there and execute. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about each race in that first round. I think we can improve on those tracks that we’ve ran already and try to put ourselves in a good position in that first round. It’s all about the Playoffs at this point.”
With one regular season race remaining in Daytona, Byron and his crew would obviously like to win. But there are other goals as well.
Being that Daytona’s sister track, the Talladega Super Speedway, hosts one of the Playoff races, Byron hopes his team can learn some things this Saturday night in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 that can be applied to their car or their strategy when the series rolls into Alabama this October.
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And more, Byron trails Kyle Busch by only five points for third place in the current standings. Should he be able to take that position after the checkered flag waves in Daytona, it would be worth what could be a vital additional Playoff point. It’s something the HMS organization has considered.
“It’s definitely on our mind,” Byron declared. “I felt like, us and Kyle, we’ve been close the last three races. We obviously had that unfortunate thing at Indy with the curb and that hurt us in the points so we’re probably five points behind him. It would be really nice to get that position. Kyle is a good plate racer. He’s gotten better and better every time and closer to a win. He’s going to be tough to beat so we’ve just got to keep tabs on him and try to race as hard as we can. Hopefully we can finish the race third in points.”
One thing this team needs to work on if it is to make a deep run in the Playoffs is consistency. While they did string together that impressive eleven-race streak earlier in the year, their more recent performances have been less impressive. Over the course of the last ten Cup events, the No. 24 has finished 20th or worse five times with three podium finishes mixed in among those less-than-stellar performances.
“We started the year really strong with the win in the third race then after that we were in the top-10 every week for a while,” Byron recalled. “That came down to execution and having the balance of our car close. Those were all race tracks that Rudy and I hadn’t been to together so he was just kind of using the notebook of Chad(Knaus, former No. 24 crew chief) and the other crew chiefs to figure out what to do. Then we went through the summer and I thought we had speed but we didn’t execute, we kind of left that behind. Some of it was on my end and some of it was on the team and we just need to clean it up.”
Even with the recent inconsistency, Byron has already established new career highs in terms of top-5 and top-10 finishes through the first 25 races on the 2021 schedule. Now, he feels like that early season strength may be coming back.
“I feel like after the summer break we’ve been a top-5 team every week. I think we’re really capable right now of executing well. We’ve gotten back to our roots in that and made our race cars just a little bit better, I think. We just have to continue to execute. It sounds simple but it’s really hard. We’re going to try to keep that going like we did early in the season, and hopefully the wins will come.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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