By Cole Cusumano
For William Byron, 2021 has been a progressive and potentially career-defining year. He set the tone for what would be a season dominated by Hendrick Motorsport by giving the team its first win at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This went on to lay a foundation that would elevate his status in the NASCAR Cup Series and establish the No. 24 team as championship contenders.
New crew chief, Rudy Fugle, has played a huge role in shaping the complexion of the 23-year-old’s career in his fourth full-time season with his presence atop the pit box. Victory in Miami provided a spark and led Byron to become one of the hottest drivers in the sport, going on an 11-race top-10 stretch from there.
“That came down to just execution and having the balance of the car close,” Byron told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Those were all race tracks that Rudy and I had been to together. So, we were just using the notebook of Chad (Knaus) and the other crew chiefs to figure out what to do.”
Unfortunately for Byron, all good things must come to an end, and such is the nature of the strenuous Cup Series schedule. Once their impressive string of quality finishes was snapped, the No. 24 team hit a cold stretch in the dog days of Summer. In the seven races leading up to the two-week break for the Olympics, Byron had four finishes outside of the top-20 with an average of 18.1.
“I thought we had speed, but we didn’t execute,” Byron admitted. “We kind of left that behind. Some of it was on my end and some of it was on the team. We just kind of needed to clean it up.”
By virtue of three stage wins and 207 stage points (third-most), Byron has managed to stay in the hunt for a top-five placing in the standings with a race remaining in the regular-season. Just five points separate him and Kyle Busch in a heated battle for the third-spot heading to Daytona International Speedway.
“I feel like after the summer break, we’ve really been a top-five team every week,” Byron said. “I think we are 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.”
Byron can back these claims with two top-10s — including a runner-up most recently at Michigan International Speedway — in the three weeks since returning from break. Speed was evident even with a 33rd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after he qualified on the pole for the second time in 2021 before wrecking from fourth with five to go.
“I feel like we just have to continue to execute,” Byron said. “It sounds simple but it is really hard. We’re just trying to keep that going like we did in the early part of the season and hopefully the wins will come.”
Starting from the front row alongside his teammate, Kyle Larson, Byron returns to Daytona where it all began. It was this race one year ago, where he secured his first Cup Series victory and locked himself into the playoffs.
Byron enters the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in a much different situation in 2021 — with nothing to lose. He’ll look to finish third in the regular-season standings and assert himself as a force to be reckoned with in the postseason.