RIDGEWAY, Va. — Entering Sunday (Oct. 29) with a 30-point cushion over the cut line, it seemed like making the Championship 4 would be a cakewalk for William Byron.
It was anything but that. Byron struggled throughout the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway but climbed at the end to finish 13th. He wound up beating Denny Hamlin for the final Championship 4 spot by eight points.
As soon as Byron climbed out of his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, he immediately went to the pit wall and sat down with a bright red face in exhaustion. He went back over to the car briefly, but came right back to his seat on pit wall, where he did all of his media availabilities.
“I feel terrible, but it doesn’t really matter,” Byron said. “All that matters is the result.”
Byron got overheated in weather much hotter than a typical fall in Martinsville. He noted that he had the same issue in the spring event this year as well.
“Our car was so hot from, honestly, around lap 30,” Byron said. “I’ve never been that hot. The helmet fan — it really wasn’t pushing enough clean air to me. I would have to shut it off, turn it back on, and it would recycle.”
The heat made Byron want to call it a day early and miss the Championship 4. But the 25-year-old powered through to the end.
“With like 56 [laps] to go, it was so blurry in the car, I just wanted to pull in, but you’re not gonna do that,” Byron said. “I was gonna have a failure or do something first.”
Aside from the heat, the No. 24 was not good on Sunday. It certainly didn’t have the speed Byron showed throughout the season, winning a NASCAR Cup Series-high six races.
Byron was bummed from the start of the weekend after qualifying 16th.
“I was so nervous sleeping last night,” Byron said. “I don’t think I said a word to Erin [Blaney, girlfriend] on the way here in the car. I was just so nervous. I had the feeling in my stomach.
“It’s nothing against the work we put in, but I just didn’t have the feeling in the car that I wanted.”
Byron was inside of the top 15 in the first stage, but in stage two, he dropped all the way outside the top 20. With Byron getting zero stage points while Hamlin scored 19 stage points, it made it so Hamlin could point his way in over the No. 24 if he finished 18 spots higher than him. With Hamlin running in the top two most of the race and Byron in 24th, Byron’s championship bid appeared to be over.
Byron started to show his frustration on the radio.
“I’ve never been so mad in a racecar,” Byron said. “I’ve never wanted to get out so much. I’ve never been so frustrated at the car, how loose I was, how tight I was in spots. I just had no grip.”
That’s when crew chief Rudy Fugle came into play.
“It was a really hard-fought battle,” Byron said. “Just super thankful for my team. My crew chief Rudy knew what buttons to push to keep me in the game.”
Fugle was Byron’s crew chief back in his Craftsman Truck Series days. And when Byron was struggling to have the success common at HMS, the team brought in Fugle to lead the No. 24 team. The duo has won nine Cup races together in three years, and now they could go get a championship.
“I trust him [Fugle] like a brother,” Byron said. “He’s known me since I was an infant in racing, 18 years old. He knows all my strengths, all my weaknesses. I believe in him.”
As Fugle and the No. 24 bunch continued to work on the car, Byron moved back into the top 20. Then as several cars who had gambled on fuel mileage had to pit at the end, Byron cracked the top 15, making it impossible for Hamlin to out-point him without a win. Hamlin could only finish third.
“We had a great season, and it just would’ve sucked to not make it,” Byron said. “… This is my dream. I love to race cars. I didn’t grow up doing it, but I love what I do, and they [my team] believe in me.”
As Byron sat on the pit wall depleted, his parents came over to hug him. Then Hendrick Vice Chairman and former No. 24 driver Jeff Gordon came to talk to him.
“They’re not supposed to be that hard,” Gordon joked to Byron.
After Gordon came his girlfriend Erin Blaney with a big hug, Xfinity 500 runner-up Aric Almirola with some kind words and finally, his HMS teammate Kyle Larson, who Byron will have to go head-to-head against for the title next week.
“Good job, buddy,” Kyle Larson said. “That was stressful, huh?”
Larson has been through a championship race before, but this is Byron’s first time making it to the Championship 4. And in one week, the Charlotte native could be the first Cup champion from the state of North Carolina since Dale Jarrett in 1999.
“We really deserve it,” Byron said. “We deserve to go to Phoenix, and it’s nice to see it pay off.”
On pit road, Byron didn’t look like a driver who just clinched a spot in the championship race. But he noted that would change once he left Martinsville.
“I’m gonna be super happy on the drive home,” Byron said. “I’m gonna kiss my girlfriend. I’m gonna hug my dog. I’m just gonna go home and sleep a lot.”
About the author
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.
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