DARLINGTON, S.C. – William Byron is back in NASCAR’s playoffs, and he’s riding a wave of momentum after his No. 24 Chevy won last weekend’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
It was Byron’s first win since moving up to Cup competition.
Before taking the checkered flag Saturday, Byron was just four points ahead of Jimmie Johnson for the 16th and final spot. But because of the win, Byron is seeded ninth.
“Honestly, for us, I think that now having that first win of the season and first win for me and this team, I feel like we’re more focused on just executing the details of each race,” Byron said. “Obviously, our goal going into this year was to make it further than we did last year in the playoffs, which was the round of 12 last year. So, if we can make it to the round of eight this year, it would be a success, for sure.”
In another bid of good fortune, Hendrick Motorsports signed Byron to an extension through 2022.
But now back to the 10-race playoffs.
“We just have to take it one race at a time,” he said. “A lot of these tracks are good for us. I think the first round is probably the weakest of the tracks for us, so we just have to try to focus on that, try to just compete in every race and hopefully get out of this first round with a great race at Darlington. Richmond is definitely our toughest of the three, so we’re going to have to really work hard at that race to have a good run.”
Byron earned the pole position for last year’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, but he finished 21st. Entering his fifth race at the Track Too Tough to Tame, strong finishes have not been part of Byron’s résumé’ there. Of his other three Darlington finishes, he placed 35th twice but did place 12th in May’s night race at Darlington.
Now that Byron and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, appear to be on track, that could be a huge factor these first three races before the playoff field is trimmed to 12.
“I think it helps a lot. I mean obviously, a couple weeks ago, we were struggling there at Dover. But we really turned it around,” Byron said of Knaus, who was the crew chief for seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson. “Since that second race (at Dover), we’ve really been on it. I think honestly for us, we’ve gotten past those hurdles and we’ve been able to handle the pressure really well. So, just knowing that the two of us together can handle the pressure, go out there and do what we need to do – I have confidence in him, and we know that we have the same goals. We both want to win, and we’ll do whatever it takes to do that.”
Byron, who won his first race at a younger age than the No. 24’s predecessor, Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, would like nothing more than a strong playoff start at Darlington. So, what could challenge Byron here?
“Gosh, everything,” he said. “I think just the fact that it’s two lanes wide. The fact that you have to run against the wall to make speed. These cars are super sensitive to hitting the wall to begin with – you can’t even really touch the wall nowadays and get away with it. So, you have to factor all that stuff in when you go to race at Darlington. It’s a tough track. Restarts are tough there because there’s definitely a dominant lane on the outside. Having the choose cone in effect is going to make that a challenge, as well. You can kind of name everything – the playoffs, it’s not going to be easy.”