At 25 years old, William Byron is one of the youngest drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series. Byron’s age is becoming irrelevant, however, as his experience and maturation have brought him to the top of the sport.
Six years into driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Byron and the No. 24 team have found the sweet spot. Sunday afternoon at Darlington Raceway, Byron won for a series-leading third time. It is the first season in which he will have at least three wins.
Fifth in the championship point standings, Byron also leads the series in laps led (596). He is one top-10 finishes behind Christopher Bell for the most in the series (seven to Bell’s eight).
As a self-proclaimed stats guy, Byron knows his numbers better than anyone. And he knows those of the competition, too. So, when looking at the landscape of the Cup Series, does Byron feel he and his team get the respect they deserve for how they stack up in the pecking order?
“I’ve heard a lot of different opinions, but I think as a team, and statistically, I feel like we’re right where we need to be,” Byron says. “There are a couple of other guys who are really close or even a little bit better in some categories. Kyle has been really strong; I feel like he’s really fast on some of the bigger tracks. Ross has some good stats.
“I look at all that stuff: laps led, average running position. All those things. I feel like, in most of the things I’ve looked at, we’re pretty good. I do have a couple of areas I feel like we could improve, and we’ll keep working on them.”
Byron is well on his way to leading the most laps he ever has in a single season. In looking ahead to later this year, Byron and the No. 24 team are positioning themselves for a deep playoff run with the help of playoff points. In that category, he also leads the series with 16.
In the last three and a quarter seasons, Byron has seven wins. And not only has he improved his finish in the standings each season, but Byron is improving his consistency each weekend to become a familiar presence for expected finishes if not wins.
Does Byron feel he’s a top-five driver in the garage right now?
“For sure,” he says. “Definitely that. It’s just really hard to separate at the top, I feel like there’s a few guys who could win every week. So, being in that little bit is tough, but sometimes they go your way, and you try to stay up there in contention.”
When Byron came into the Cup Series, he was tasked with taking over the famed No. 24 car, and admitted after winning at Darlington that while he was thankful for the opportunity, there was a lot of pressure that came with the job.
He is a different person now, but the growing never stops. Winning is great, but Byron & Co. have already shown they can do that.Continuing to win is key, since Byron also won early last year and then stalled out.
“I think we had kind of a chip (on our shoulder) and a little bit of just trying not to let that happen again,” Byron says as crew chief Rudy Fugle nods his head next to his driver. “We’ve been probably overexerting ourselves a little bit just to make sure that we don’t repeat.
“Now I think we’re safely in a groove here where we’ve got to continue our processes, continue what got us here, but it definitely feels different than what we had last year where I felt like after we won those couple races, we had just kind of a false confidence, I think. We’ve learned from that. I have. I don’t intend on doing that again.”
Rick Hendrick knows talent, and he sees it with his youngest driver.
“To look back at William and see how he’s matured over the years and how good he is now, it’s pretty amazing that the lack of laps he’s got, to be in the position that he’s in,” says Hall of Famer Hendrick. “But he’s smart. He works hard. He’s in the simulator all the time. He puts a lot of effort into the program.”
A former driver of the No. 24 who is no stranger to developing into a contender himself also sees how far Byron has come.
“Leading laps, winning races, competing up front almost every single weekend, racing with the competitors he’s racing with,” says four-time champion Jeff Gordon. “That builds your confidence in a way where you can be more calm because something might happen that gets you behind, but you’ve got confidence in yourself, your pit crew, your team, (that) we’ll get it back. I think that’s what I’m seeing, kind of the evolution of William and the whole team this year.”