William Byron and Rudy Fugle have fallen back into a familiar pattern.
It’s been less than three weeks that Fugle has been on the job at Hendrick Motorsports as the No. 24 team’s crew chief. Fugle inherited the team from seven-time champion Chad Knaus, who now oversees all competition aspects at Hendrick. Fortunately, it hasn’t been that difficult a transition, with Fugle and Byron having already established a relationship during the 2016 Camping World Truck Series season.
Together again, Byron has felt that Fugle has quickly had an impact.
“We’ve met two or three times over the last couple of weeks, and the influence has already been there, and we’ve kind of picked up where we left off with communication,” said Byron. “We do have to be out on the racetrack to really see kind of the fruits of that, but you can plan accordingly and have a really good plan, and that’s a good start. It doesn’t always go that well, but you can kind of plan those things out. I feel good about it. I feel like we’re going to pick up where we left off.”
As the team has gone through its offseason preparation, Fugle has looked things over with a fresh set of eyes, trying to soak up as much information as fast as he can. His is the only new face on the team: he did not bring anyone with him in his move from Kyle Busch Motorsports to Hendrick.
“I feel like the racing side of things is similar even from a Truck to a car,” said Fugle. “It’s just the cars are different aero and suspension and different things than the Truck I’ve worked on. When you work with a team long enough, all that stuff is embedded in your brain, and you know everything like the back of your hand.
“So I’m trying to make it where I know all that stuff as much as possible so I can help make those decisions and know as much as possible to make things better when I’m asked upon. That’s where I’ve been spending more of my hours. And getting to know everybody is a big part of it.”
The 2021 season will be Fugle’s first as a NASCAR Cup Series crew chief. For Byron, it will be his fourth as a full-time competitor, and after multiple visits to each track on the calendar, the feeling of being a newcomer has passed.
In two of his first three seasons, Byron made the playoffs. But it wasn’t until this year in the regular-season finale in Daytona that he finally broke through to win his first race. Now is the time, said Byron, “to get it together and perform really at a high level every week.”
“I think the positives are easy to kind of identify,” Byron continued. “I think making the playoffs the last two years has been great. The pole positions that we had in 2019 when we were qualifying was great. The race win, the Duel win – all those things are good things, which kind of establishes us as a contender—somebody who can potentially win.
“But I think now, it’s just being a consistent threat and being somebody that each week and each track we go to is not really a weakness, and we can identify some of those small details that are going to take us to that top five or six groups of teams that get to the final eight and, hopefully, the final four. So, yeah, I think just figuring out how to make that next step not just to be a one-time winner each year.”
Byron and Fugle’s familiarity is one thing, but Cup Series teams still won’t be getting much on-track time next season to fine-tune the cars and work on their relationships. Just eight races will have a practice before the green flag, and that’s a whole new environment for Fugle. But both driver and crew chief have high expectations, and Fugle isn’t looking for a grace period to get it right.
“We’re planning on starting the year strong and going,” he said. “There might be some things that come up that it’s like, ‘man, I didn’t think I needed to know that’, or ‘I messed that up’, or whatnot. But for the most part, I feel like we’re going to be ready to go. Our in-race communication is going to be good. Our in-race adjustments, there are lots of smart people here to help me make those decisions. We’ve got a good pit crew. Hendrick Motorsports is putting out a good Camaro. So, I think we should be ready to go.”