For the second week in a row, William Byron took advantage of an overtime restart to capture a NASCAR Cup Series victory. At Phoenix Raceway last weekend, Byron was fast at the drop of the green flag and won the first stage. Kyle Larson took command in the second stage, and the two Hendrick Motorsports drivers combined to lead all but 16 of the race’s first 268 laps until Kevin Harvick emerged as a new challenger late in the event with superior long-run speed. It appeared that he would cruise to his first win of the year until Harrison Burton’s spin with 11 laps to go.
Thanks to a two-tire call from crew chief Rudy Fugle, Byron was second off pit road behind Larson. The race restarted with three laps left, but the yellow flag came out quickly for a crash back in the pack. On the overtime restart attempt, Byron got a huge push from Tyler Reddick, allowing him to slip away with the lead as Larson, Reddick, Harvick, and Ryan Blaney battled behind him. Byron’s second win in a row was the second for Hendrick this season and the fourth win for Chevrolet in as many races.
It is tempting to crown Byron as the championship favorite in 2023. In the last two weeks, he and the No. 24 team have shown great pace at a high-speed intermediate track and at a flat oval with the new Next Gen short track aero package. They have also been able to execute in high-pressure situations and steal wins when other drivers appeared to have the dominant car in the closing laps. Speed and execution typically bode well for postseason success.
However, Byron has gotten off to fast starts before. In both of the last two seasons, he had a win in the bank by the end of March along with a string of other good finishes that lifted him into the top five in overall points. The real challenge for the No. 24 team has been sustaining its early season momentum. Both of Byron’s strong starts to the 2021 and 2022 Cup Series seasons fizzled out, leaving potential wins and playoff points on the table once the postseason arrived. Missing out on those points left the No. 24 team with a lot of unfulfilled potential over the last two years. At this point, there is not enough evidence to suggest that 2023 will turn out differently for Byron.
Consider how Byron started off the 2021 season much like this one. After a pair of poor results at Daytona International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway, he emerged victorious in the third race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was a surprising win because his only other Cup Series victory at that point came in the 400-mile Daytona race in 2020. Byron had not yet shown the ability to go out and dominate races at the more traditional intermediate tracks. However, the No. 24 team took control during the 60-lap green flag run to the finish, and Byron never relinquished the lead. It was his third race after being reunited with Fugle, and many took the race as a sign of greater things to come in 2021.
Yet Homestead proved to be Byron’s only victory that year. The No. 24 team did run better on a week-to-week basis than the previous three years, as Byron achieved new personal bests for top fives, top 10s, average starts, average finishes and laps led. A string of ten consecutive top 10s following the Homestead win were crucial in bolstering Byron’s stats, but the No. 24 team never went out and dominated late in a race like they did at Homestead. Worse yet, Byron’s championship hopes ended prematurely with a disastrous second round of the playoffs. For as much consistency as Byron had in 2021, three lackluster races at the wrong time knocked him out of the title fight.
Last season began poorly for Byron with two finishes outside the top 30. But after that, the No. 24 team got back on track over the next six weeks. Byron won the fifth race of the season at the newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway. Three weeks later, he won again at Martinsville Speedway to become the first repeat winner of 2022. A month after that, Byron nearly scored a third win at Darlington Raceway until a scuffle with Joey Logano while racing for the lead in the closing laps knocked him out of the top 10. Although that race ended with hard feelings between Byron and Logano, Byron left Darlington second in overall points.
Then came the summer, and with it an abrupt loss of speed for the No. 24 team. In the first half of the regular season, Byron had two wins, four top fives and led 569 laps. During the second half, he earned only one top 10 finish – a ninth at Sonoma Raceway. Instead of regularly leading the pack, the No. 24 team spent most races mired in the middle of the field. The only race during that stretch where Byron led more than one lap was the return trip to Atlanta, a race that ended with a crash and a 30th place finish. It was a shocking collapse from a team that looked like one of the championship favorites.
Instead of ending the regular season in the top five in overall points, Byron tumbled down the grid to 10th. That meant that the No. 24 team got only one additional playoff point from its finish in the regular season standings. Byron was ultimately eliminated from the playoffs in the third round by more than the difference of playoff points that he lost in the regular season, but the No. 24 team had little chance to compete against drivers like Chase Elliott and Ross Chastain who piled up playoff points, or drivers like Logano and Christopher Bell who caught fire at the end of the season. With the championship on the line, the No. 24 team was not at its best.
Given Byron’s history of starting out strong only to fade during the course of a season, it is too early to designate him as the championship favorite. Things could still turn out differently this time, especially since Byron now has the experience of making a deep title run in the Cup Series postseason. However, success in the elimination-style playoffs requires good timing. If Byron is going to be a serious title contender in 2023, he will need to have more races like the one he had last weekend at the end of the season, rather than the beginning.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.