William Byron is going to the postseason for the third time in four years of NASCAR Cup Series racing. But this season is the first time that Byron has a guaranteed spot after winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway, removing him from the group who fight it out down to the wire for the final few spots on the playoff grid.
“It’s going to be fun this year,” Byron said. “I think I’ve spent kind of a lot of my Cup Series career kind of on the bubble of the playoffs, and now I don’t have to worry about that. It’s crazy; I’m going to take all that stuff in and just got a great team, got an awesome crew chief. It’s going to be a fun year.”
Sunday night, Byron and crew chief Rudy Fugle looked and sounded like they were just getting started. Amped up after his first win as a Cup Series crew chief, Fugle emphatically told his crew to “get used” to winning.
Time will tell with the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 team. However, there is the belief that Homestead, the first intermediate race of the season, was the first real indication of which teams might be contenders – or at least, off to a good start.
Confidence also goes a long way. Byron is confident and comfortable with Fugle, with whom he won seven races during the 2016 Camping World Truck Series season. The duo could have – and possibly should have – won the championship had an engine failure at Phoenix not kept them from advancing to the finale.
Fugle is three races into his tenure as a Cup Series crew chief, replacing seven-time champion Chad Knaus. It’s taken Fugle less than time to get Byron into victory lane than it did Knaus, but after Homestead, Fugle made sure to point out that Knaus built the team, and shaped Byron into the driver he’s become.
“What helped us about the previous relationship was the fact that we’ve worked together before, and I knew him, I knew how to push his buttons,” Fugle said of Byron. “I knew how to motivate him, and that helped buy me some time to learn these Cup cars that I don’t know yet, so I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Across 168 races, Fugle’s 28 race wins are the second-most wins for a crew chief in series history. He also guided Christopher Bell and Erik Jones to championships, and was the crew chief of record for five Kyle Busch Motorsports owner titles.
“It’s all about people in this sport,” Byron said.
A month ago, not many, if anyone, would have locked Byron, Christopher Bell, and Michael McDowell into the playoffs after the first three weeks. And certainly not because they won the first three races. It’s an unfamiliar storyline for the Cup Series field, and a strange position for Byron and his team to be in with so much racing left to go.
“I think for us, we’re just going to stay attacking each race,” Byron said. “There’s nothing like running well, but yeah, you’re not going to go to sleep during the regular season at as nervous and as stressed. I can tell you that leaving Daytona last week was not a good feeling. So yeah, it’s awesome. It’s going to allow us to focus on the right things even more.”
Bryon was eliminated in the second round of the 2019 playoffs and after the opening round last year. In three full seasons, his best finish in the point standings is 11th, and Byron did not make the postseason in his rookie season.
“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 – you have to be careful that you’re not going to get too many one win (drivers), so you want to keep attacking for that reason,” Fugle said. “Two is, 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 contend for a championship.
“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.”
With no place to go but up and an early win having Byron and Fugle feeling good, they have 33 more races to show and not just tell that their confidence is worth something.