Winning at the NASCAR Cup Series level requires the perfect storm of good equipment, a crew chief calling a quality race, the pit crew performing to perfection, and the driver knowing when and how to make the final move. It's deceptively simple — somebody has to win, but 39 others have to lose, too.
William Byron found Victory Lane for the first time in 2020, in the final race of the regular season when a win would guarantee him a playoff berth. He did it with an aggressive move, touching off a multi-car crash in his rearview — perhaps it wasn't the way he'd have wanted it, but it proved to be his breakthrough moment.
The win at Daytona International Speedway was the highlight of a solid season for Byron, his third full season in the Cup Series at just 22 years old. Byron was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in his second appearance.
Byron is just beginning to come into his own as a driver. He's very young and was relatively inexperienced in NASCAR's lower ranks before making the jump to the Cup Series. His first season was a struggle as he learned to handle both the cars and his competitors, who at that level won't hesitate to school a young driver when they feel it's necessary.
Heading into his sophomore season in 2019, Byron was paired with the most successful crew chief of his generation and one of the top wrenches of all time in seven-time champion Chad Knaus. Knaus brought consistency to the table, and Byron learned the patience it took to become a playoff driver.
Knaus will step aside this year, taking on a new role with Hendrick Motorsports as VP of competition. This led to another opportunity for Byron: He'll be reunited with Rudy Fugle, who was his crew chief at Kyle Busch Motorsports during a dominant seven-win Trucks season in 2016 when Byron was only 18. Byron fell short of the title due to an untimely engine failure at Phoenix, but he made enough of a statement that Rick Hendrick snatched him away from the Toyota camp and promoted him to the Cup Series after just a year in the Xfinity Series. It's safe to say that Byron and Fugle work well together, and that experience will help shorten Fugle's learning curve as he comes to the top series for the first time.
Byron leads Hendrick's youth movement; he'll be 23 when the 2021 season rolls off at Daytona. New teammate Kyle Larson will be the elder statesman at HMS at 28. If a quartet that also includes defending champion Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman works well together, it could be a force in the Cup Series for another decade or more. That's promising for an organization that's still in rebuild mode after a couple of years behind the competition, but one that has been turning things around.
While three years would seem to be a slow learning curve in the Cup Series thanks to a handful of drivers who won almost out of the box in recent years, it's actually fairly normal. Elliott won his first race in his third full season as well. Byron came to Cup with less overall experience than Elliott, so he's not doing badly. In 2020, he learned to race for the win and to be aggressive enough to go take it. Hendrick has confidence in his development, extending Byron's contract last fall through 2022.
Now, Byron needs to learn the kind of consistency that will take him to the next level as a driver. He's got the equipment and now the crew chief he's worked best with; will that address his nasty habit of 16 DNFs in his first 108 starts? If he can level out that roller coaster, the wins will start to come with more frequency as well.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 33/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)