William Byron didn’t win multiple races in 2021, nor did he contend for the NASCAR Cup Series title. But while last year wasn’t exactly a breakout season for Byron, it was an important one.
Byron won at Homestead-Miami Speedway in just the third race of the season, and that would remain his only win, but what Byron found instead of Victory Lane was consistency. He scored a career-high 20 top-10 finishes, including an 11-race streak from March to mid-May in which he was in the top 10 every single week. Byron also posted a career best in laps led with 425, accounting for nearly half of the 859 laps he’s led in his four-year Cup career. His 10th-place points finish was another personal best.
What Byron’s improvement did for the 24-year-old was put him in position to capitalize on opportunities late in races to take the best finish possible, and it meant he was racing the sport’s elite at the front. That’s a big step toward winning more races and going deeper into the playoffs. Byron has made real gains and shown steady improvement each year in the series. He’s a very young driver, and his steady upward trajectory is a sign of things to come.
He’s had the advantage of moving through the ranks with top teams that have supported his learning curve. Hendrick Motorsports reestablished itself as a Cup powerhouse in the last two seasons, and Byron has benefited from that, but he’s also contributed with wins. The organization has a history of giving youngsters time to grow if they show promise, and to that end, it’s been a great fit for Byron. Coupled with the confidence he’s been afforded by sponsors Axalta (which has been with the No. 24 team since its inception), Liberty University and Valvoline, he has the support system to keep the momentum going.
When Byron joined HMS, moving to its Xfinity affiliate JR Motorsports, he was coming off a dominant 2016 Truck Series season with Kyle Busch Motorsports in which he won seven races but lost a shot at the championship with a blown engine in the final cutoff race. At KBM, Byron worked with crew chief Rudy Fugle, who won the Truck title with Christopher Bell for KBM in 2017. Fugle also has a Truck title with Erik Jones.
The pair had worked well together, with the crew chief helping the youngster improve his communication and feel. Hendrick jumped on the chance to hire Fugle last season after Chad Knaus moved to an organizational role, and the pair picked up where they left off with Byron’s best season by most standards. They clearly click during races, and Fugle’s strategy calls are sound and timely. The two look like they could have a long career together.
Byron has made the Playoffs in each of the last three years, and this year, he’ll be looking to go deeper. Competition for the title race might prove too stiff, but he’s a viable Round of 8 threat.
There are areas where Byron can improve. His five DNFs were all due to crashes, and while he’s not to blame for all of them, staying out of volatile situations is an area that has room for growth. Sometimes there’s nothing a driver can do to avoid trouble, but positioning oneself to actively avoid it is a learned skill — and so is taming aggression. If Byron can trim his DNF total by two or three, his overall numbers will only be better.
Byron is beginning to resemble drivers like Joey Logano — maybe not winning a crazy number of races, but showing consistently strong finishes and racing aggressively to be in the best position possible at the end. Sometimes that can lead to trouble, but it can also lead to success, and Byron is knocking on that door.