“I mean, first of all, with the weird winners we’ve had so far, and I don’t think we’re weird but it kind of is a little bit weird,”
It seems like a disservice to classify William Byron as a “surprise winner” following his dominant victory in Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but when the driver and crew chief are, well…. surprised to be in victory lane at the end of the night, I think there is no better term than a “surprise”.
It’s a different feeling for the 23-year-old, who before Sunday’s race had never been able to score a top-five finish in the first 17 races in any of his three seasons at NASCAR’s top-level, much less been able to secure a spot in the series’ playoffs this early in the season.
“Yeah, I haven’t really ever thought about it because I’ve never been in this position,” said Byron. “So I think for us we’re just going to stay attacking each race. I think there’s nothing like running well, but yeah, you’re not going to go to sleep during the regular season at least as nervous and as stressed.”
Before Sunday, Byron’s season wasn’t going very well, leaving the second race of the season 29th in points after a pair of finishes outside the top-25. Of course, with NASCAR’s performance-based lineup determination, a poor finish and low owner points position slotted Byron into a starting spot outside the top-30.
When the race started, Byron picked up spots at an incredible pace, landing himself a spot inside the top-15 by the conclusion of lap seven, a net gain of 16 spots from the start of the race. The 23-year-old leveled to 12th by the time the first caution came out and continued to pick off spots to finish fourth in stage one, after another caution and subsequent restart.
The second stage of the race featured much of the same thing, with Byron struggling to get the track position needed to take command of the race, hovering around the back-half of the top-five. However, in a one-lap dash to end the second stage, race leaders Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin slid up the racetrack, allowing Byron to slide by and take the win and the elusive playoff point that comes with it.
With the lead in hand, Byron was able to extend his advantage on the restart, eventually stretching his lead to almost six seconds in the process. While Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. looked to have the speed to reel him in at times, the Charlotte, North Carolina-native was able to “make it live” and prevail, holding off a hard-charging Tyler Reddick for his second NASCAR Cup Series victory.
“Yeah, no, it’s a Tony Hirschman thing with me, and then we’ve just kind of applied it through all the years. It’s a great thing to say because that means you’re leading and that means you’re usually pulling away and that means you just need to drive underneath the tires so that you can deal with anything else that’s going to come across when you’re dealing with lap traffic, whenever somebody is coming from the back of the pack and you’ve got a little bit left. That’s all it’s meaning, just not to push too hard. A lot of it comes from having such young drivers like I’ve been used to; they get the lead, and they drive harder than they should. I don’t think William needed that, but it felt good to say it, so we kept going with it.”
— Rudy Fugle, on the meaning and origin of the saying “make it live”
It’s the first NASCAR Cup Series win for crew chief Rudy Fugle, who joined Byron and Hendrick Motorsports at the beginning of the season. The familiarity and chemistry are present enough for the pairing to be successful, as together they’ve scored seven NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wins, which is part of the reasoning behind wanting Fugle on the pit box for the youngster.
“Yeah, obviously you have to back it up with results, so I think for me, I wanted to make sure we had results, but I think the results come when you have people like that to work with,” said Byron. “You think on the same page, and somebody who puts that kind of effort in. He puts a lot of effort in, but he’s obviously very intelligent.
“I feel like for me, it goes back to the Truck days and what we did there and the feelings that I had in those race cars and the things that I wanted to have in my Cup car and the feelings there. He’s really leaned heavily on Alan Gustafson and all the crew chiefs at HMS to get up to speed and we have the best resources out there, so it’s all about making the most of them.”
While Fugle is still fairly new to being a crew chief at NASCAR’s top-level, the confidence that he has in William Byron and Hendrick Motorsports, could easily expedite the process in building the No. 24 team into a multi-race winning team and even legitimate threats for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship in the years to come.
“… we want to learn how to be a winning race team. In the playoffs to win a championship you have to win a lot of races, so we have to learn how to do that now and get used to that to be able to contend for a championship,” said Fugle. “We’re not a championship team yet, but over the next 20-some weeks we’re going to become one, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
Over the next twenty-three weeks, Byron and Fugle will have the opportunity to learn more about each other and what they can do to make their cars faster in hopes of potentially making a run at the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
The key to getting it done. Execution.