William Byron and the No. 24 team must be feeling good this week. Byron earned his fifth victory of the season last Sunday (Aug. 20) at Watkins Glen International. The win ended a short rough patch for Byron, who had not scored a top-10 finish since winning at Atlanta Motor Speedway last month. Leading 66 of 90 laps, Byron took control of the race after Michael McDowell incurred a pit road penalty early in the afternoon. With McDowell buried in the pack, nobody else could catch the No. 24.
The victory, plus a win in stage two, gave Byron an additional six playoff points for his efforts at Watkins Glen. That brings his current season-long total to 28, the most of anyone in the NASCAR Cup Series. Additionally, he remains the only Cup Series driver with more than three wins in 2023. Based on those numbers, and with one race left in the regular season, you might think that Byron is the clear-cut favorite to win the Cup Series championship.
However, Byron and the No. 24 team have not been flawless this season. He is not in a position to win the regular season championship, which will likely go to Martin Truex Jr. In fact, Byron is currently third in overall points, trailing Truex and Denny Hamlin. Obviously being third in points is still admirable, but the No. 24 team has without a doubt left some points on the table. Had Byron been fully in control of the regular season points battle, he would be a heavy favorite to reach the championship race by now. Instead, the playoffs are shaping up to be a showdown between Byron, Truex and Hamlin.
There have been two factors in Byron’s season that have prevented him from running away with the points lead. The first is the aforementioned slump that the No. 24 team just ended. Following his Atlanta win, Byron led the overall points standings by 21 over Truex. Hamlin was down in sixth place, trailing Byron by 67.
Over the next five weeks, Byron struggled just as Truex and Hamlin surged. Truex’s victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway kicked off a string of five consecutive finishes of seventh or better. He kept that streak alive with a sixth-place finish at Watkins Glen on Sunday. Even with Byron’s victory, he still trails Truex by 76 points. That equals a 97-point swing in the No. 19 team’s favor over the last six weeks.
Hamlin, too, has made up significant ground in the points standings during this same stretch of races. The No. 11 team has scored four top fives and five top 10s in six events, including a win at Pocono Raceway. Even at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, where Hamlin finished a disappointing 19th, he still won a stage and added to his playoff point total.
Meanwhile, Byron, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain all stumbled during the same stretch of races, allowing Hamlin to climb to second in points. Byron is now 37 points behind Hamlin, representing a 106-point swing relative to the No. 11 team. Perhaps Truex and Hamlin are trailing Byron in wins, but the Joe Gibbs Racing duo has realistically locked up the top two regular season points positions.
Even with his struggles during the summer, Byron could be right there with Truex and Hamlin if not for the second factor that has negatively impacted his season. Back in April, Byron and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman were penalized for illegal greenhouse modifications discovered on their cars. Both drivers lost 60 points and five playoff points for the infraction. For most of this season, that penalty has felt inconsequential for Byron, especially since he was able to climb from outside the top 10 in points to first after the Atlanta victory.
However, consider that if Byron had those 60 points back, he would be only 16 behind Truex heading into the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway. In that scenario, Byron would have a good chance to win the regular season title and the bonus playoff points that come with it. Superspeedway racing has not been Truex’s forte during his Cup Series career. On the other hand, Byron earned his first Cup Series win in Daytona’s 400-mile race in 2020 and has since won two more races at Atlanta following its superspeedway-like reconfiguration. He knows how to run fast at drafting tracks and could realistically make up 16 points on Truex with a little bit of luck. Yet that opportunity is gone due to the penalty.
The kicker for Byron is that the greenhouse penalty might cost him a lot more than five playoff points. If he finishes third in the regular season standings (without winning the race or any stages at Daytona), Byron will pick up a bonus of eight playoff points, bringing his total through the end of the regular season to 36. That’s a great start to the postseason, but just imagine if the penalty didn’t happen and Byron emerged as the regular season champ. Along with having the five penalized playoff points back, he would earn another 15 playoff points and start the postseason with a total of 48. In this scenario, the penalty would cost Byron an additional seven playoff points on top of the five he already lost.
Furthermore, Truex is now in a position to take the 15 playoff points for himself. If he does, he would start the postseason right on Byron’s heels with 35 playoff points. Hamlin would begin with 25 playoff points if he ends the regular season in second place. None of that means that Byron can’t win the title; the playoff races will decide that.
But Truex is a past champion under this format, and he and Hamlin both have much more experience than Byron in making deep playoff runs. In four postseason appearances, Byron has only gotten past the second round once. If he’s going to battle veterans like Truex and Hamlin for the playoffs, he will need all the help he can get.
Byron’s loss of points over the regular season means that there is no clear favorite for the championship on the eve of the playoffs. The best bet may be Byron and Kyle Larson squaring off against Truex and Hamlin in a Hendrick versus Gibbs showdown. If the JGR veterans keep up their current pace, they will likely claim two of the four spots in the championship race. Even if Byron is right there with them, he may find himself wishing that some of those potential playoff points had not slipped away from the No. 24 team during the regular season.
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.
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