Through the first third of the NASCAR season, William Byron is arguably the most improved driver in the NASCAR Cup Series.
His stats back it up.
Byron, now in his fourth full-time Cup season with Hendrick Motorsports, got off to a mediocre start at Daytona International Speedway, placing 26th in the Great American Race after getting caught up in the lap 14 wreck and 33rd on the road course a week later. After two events, he sat 29th in the championship standings.
Since then, Byron has been among the most consistent drivers in NASCAR, piling up nine consecutive top-10 finishes entering this weekend’s race at Darlington Raceway. His current streak is the longest by a Hendrick driver since Jimmie Johnson closed the 2010 season with nine straight, en route to his fifth championship.
The No. 24 car began that streak by dominating at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as Byron scored his second Cup triumph. Looking back, that dominating performance was a major confidence boost.
“It’s definitely a pressure lifted off of us to have that win happen early and be able to focus on the details to get a little better,” Byron told Jayski.com.
During Byron’s meteoric rise this season, the No. 24 Chevrolet has a trio of top-five finishes (one shy of his total from last season) and 150 laps led, more than what he paced the field for in 2020. With 25 races to go, he’s well on pace to tally his most top-10 finishes in a single season, as he’s five shy from tying that mark (last year).
Quietly, Byron sits third in the point standings, nine markers below Martin Truex Jr. for second.
“We had to relearn some of the things that we need to do well, or some of the wings we want to work on, just because whenever you have a win, you gloss over all the things that might be a weakness,” Byron added. “We had to work on those weaknesses, and I feel like we’ve done that over the last three or four weeks and it’s shown.”
So what’s different in 2021 that has led to Byron’s hottest streak to date at the Cup level? The simple answer is adding veteran Camping World Truck Series crew chief Rudy Fugle, as the two had success together in the past.
But Byron knows one person doesn’t turn an entire team around.
After being bounced from the playoffs last September, Hendrick Motorsports announced seven-time championship winning crew chief Chad Knaus would move into an executive role within the team. Knaus, who had led the No. 24 team since the beginning of the 2019 season, is now the vice president of competition for HMS.
Within the next month, Hendrick announced it signed on Fugle to work with Byron. The two had great success at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2018 — Byron’s lone Truck Series season — winning a series-high seven times.
“Chad had called me and said he was moving on to a different role and wanted me to talk to William to see if I was interested in leading the [No.] 24 team,” Fugle said. “That was really flattering to start with, and he laid out all the details and how strong the team is besides the obvious, all the way down through.”
Being a father of four kids, Fugle wasn’t initially sold on the idea of becoming a Cup crew chief. It took some time, and the softer schedule with the majority of one-day shows was appealing to him.
“This is an easier way to adjust through what’s going on with one-day shows and two-day shows and adjust to how [his family] do things,” he said. “It would have been a whole lot more overwhelming to have three-day weekends every week with practice and qualifying.”
Byron said that he’s attempted to get Fugle over to HMS in the past, but for whatever reason, he couldn’t seal the deal.
“In the past, I tried to get him at Hendrick as an engineer to eventually be a crew chief and the details didn’t line up,” Byron said. “This time around, it made sense to have him in the fold and see what we could do.”
What the team has done is gone on a tear. While having not worked together since 2016, the duo kept an open line of communication. They’d keep tabs on each other every few weeks, reaching out if one or the other was struggling on the racetrack.
But getting the band back together was a top priority for Byron. And clearly, it’s paid dividends.
“I think a lot of credit,” Byron said, noting Fugle is a major part of the uptick in performance of the No. 24 team. “What I think he does well is get the balance really close, so that when we get to the racetrack, I don’t feel like there are many starts to the race where we’re way off.
“As the race evolves, strategy is important and he’s done a good job of, if we are having a tough day and are struggling, getting ahead of it and getting us on the right cycle, getting track position somehow.”
Fugle admitted that learning the ins and outs of the car has been the biggest challenge thus far. To which setups are the best, the aero deficiencies, all the tools it takes to be a successful race team.
But his ability to communicate, and straight up be honest with Byron is what he believes has made the difference. That’s why he believes they work so well as a pairing.
“It’s 100% that we can communicate,” Fugle said. “We can look at each other’s eyes and know what we’re thinking about and know if we believe it.
“We’re able to fully believe in each. We’re both able to do those things without ever getting our feelings hurt and keep going forward and working. I think that’s the key, you have to be completely honest with each other and not be afraid of what the relationship is.
“We both already know that we’re friends, we both believe in each other, so we can say, ‘You underperformed’ and neither one of us have a problem with that because we probably already know that we did.”
On the racing front, Byron believes the No. 24 team is on the cusp of becoming the consistent front running team that is a threat every week.
But right now, it’s just a tick off.
“We’re a fourth- to eighth-place team right now,” he said. “But to make those steps to be a top two or three team consistently we’re on the right track, we just have to get three or four percent better as a group.”
Byron has also seen the potential in the No. 24 group for some time, as it was just a matter of time before it put full races together.
In the past, though, it turned into a guessing game, as Byron was quick off the hauler and would miss the balance of the car during the race. Now, he’s got the confidence to not dial himself out.
“I feel like it’s been an evolution over time,” Byron stated. “I don’t think I’m driving the car differently. I feel like I have a little bit more confidence, have a crew chief that [I’ve] always gelled with and we communicate really well when it comes to adjustments.
“That communication is really important and we’re getting great racecars from the shop that are helping us not have to chase speed at the racetrack.”
Despite making the playoffs the last two years, Byron had an element of doubt and even said aloud to himself, ‘Man, I should be performing a lot better.’ Now, he’s locked into the 2021 postseason and has the chance for his true breakout season.
Come playoff time, the No. 24 team is hoping to find that final three to four percent Byron alluded to, and potentially be a dark horse for the 2021 championship.