William Byron is on the threshold of starting his fifth full year as a NASCAR Cup Series driver, but is still being hardened to the harshness of the premier level.
Take his 2021 season. The numbers will tell you that Byron and the No. 24 team from Hendrick Motorsports had a career year. He improved in every statistical category by earning 20 top-10 finishes, 12 top-five finishes, leading 425 laps, winding up 10th in the championship point standings and earning an overall average finish of 13.6.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Especially the win column. While Byron went to victory lane in the third race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, it was his only win — something he found inconceivable by year’s end.
“It was really hard,” Byron told RACER. “It was kind of the most bitter I’ve felt after a season. I don’t normally get bitter, but I was definitely bitter last year. I was disappointed that there were many races we could have won.”
Three come easily to mind for Byron: Pocono Raceway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.
On the second day of the Pocono doubleheader, Byron led 22 laps and held the top spot with less than five laps remaining. But being on the wrong side of the fuel strategy game, having run hard at the start of the final cycle only to start saving when it looked like others were going to stretch it, forced Byron to pit road with two laps to go. He finished 12th.
Charlotte was the Roval playoff race where Byron had a fast car. His day first went sour with an untimely caution for teammate Chase Elliott’s bumper flying off. Byron was leading at the time.
After pitting and restarting sixth, Byron was knocked off the track going into the backstretch chicane. After again battling back toward the front, Byron, admittedly in rage mode, pressed too hard and spun off course from the third position with two laps to go. He finished 11th after leading 30 laps.
Kansas saw Byron lead 57 laps. Loose lug nuts during a pit stage late in the final stage brought him back down pit road a second time and relegated him outside the top 10. Frantic restarts and lane choice hindered his rebound and Byron finished sixth.
“I think about Pocono and Charlotte and Kansas, and some of these places that we went to that it was all lined up for us to win the race,” Byron said. “And it was like leading the last run of the race and caution comes out or we run out of fuel, or something happens and we get caught up in something. It was just things like that were hard to process because at the beginning of the year, when we won Homestead, honestly, we were a top-three car, but we weren’t the best car.
“Then I felt like as the year went on, we had races where we were definitely the best car and we didn’t win. So it was hard to kind of process how that could happen. I think we learned from it, and it definitely made us really hungry going into this year.”
Byron was eliminated from championship contention at the Charlotte Roval, the second round of the playoffs. As he comes into 2022, winning multiple races in a season and a deep playoff run is top of mind. Of his three playoff appearances, the furthest Byron’s gone is the Round of 12.
As the years have come and gone, Byron has not only gained experience but confidence in his place in the sport and within his team. A lot has changed around Byron in a short amount of time and not of his doing. Rudy Fugle is his third crew chief, while Byron’s car underwent two different Chevrolet designs (introducing the Camaro ZL1 and then ZL1 1LE a year later), and now the introduction of Next Gen. And a pandemic took away valuable track time for two seasons.
Fugle enters his second year of Cup Series competition as a crew chief, and with the previous history between him and Byron, the two don’t lack communication. Gone are the days of Byron being afraid he would give the wrong information. Byron is much more comfortable and adamant in understanding his race car and feedback.
“I feel like I’m in a really good place now with the way my team is structured with Rudy, and the communication we have and how close we are,” said Byron. “And in a really good place with how Hendrick is operating as a whole, with Chad’s [Knaus] role and Jeff Gordon, Jeff Andrews. Yeah, I feel like I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in terms of my career.”
Hendrick Motorsports has gone from having a few lean years and getting through the retirement of three big stars to storming back as the elite bunch it’s traditionally been. Hendrick won the last five races of the ’21 season and enters ’22 as the reigning series champions. Elliott and Larson delivered the organization back-to-back titles. Byron played a part in Hendrick’s most successful season in recent years with 17 wins from four drivers, all of whom made the postseason.
The opportunity is there for more. Byron knows it, and he’s ready to take advantage of all that’s around him. Doing so will surely leave him with a much better taste in his mouth when the year is all said and done.