Photo courtesy of Meg Oliphant | Getty Images
AVONDALE, Ariz — The advent of the Next Gen car has no doubt leveled the playing field to a certain extent.
The NASCAR Cup Series saw a record-tying 19 different winners, all of which won by the end of the first round in the playoffs. The Next Gen’s car continues to add new players to the front of the fray even in its second season. However, one team and driver have figured out how to win in the early parts of a season.
Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 driver William Byron is once again the first breakout driver of a Cup Series season. The 25-year-old from the motorsports capital of Charlotte, North Carolina is the first driver to earn multiple wins in a season for the second year in a row.
TWO IN A ROW! RETWEET TO CONGRATULATE WILLIAM BYRON ON HIS WIN AT PHOENIX RACEWAY. pic.twitter.com/LEhUi4YFgk
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 12, 2023
Byron reached two wins in 2023 after only just four races. He won back-to-back races in the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway to start March. His crew chief, Rudy Fugle, said his team knows how to strike when the iron is hot.
“I think you got to get the wins while you’re hot,” Fugle said. “You got to capitalize, and we’ve done that.”
Byron’s early-season escapades have been among his strongest traits among a stacked Cup Series field that also includes his three Hendrick teammates, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman. He went toe-to-toe with Larson in both of his recent wins, utilizing strong overtime restarts in each of them.
Byron said he had to race hard on the final overtime restart and that winning in overtime is very hard to do.
“I wasn’t counting my blessings,” Byron said. “It went so well last week that I’m probably going to end up crashing here. I don’t love winning races that way. It’s very stressful. It’s a lot of tactics going on.”
The No. 24 team did something similar in 2022. After his win in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he was the first of seven winners at the time to reach his second victory in the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 at Martinsville Speedway just three races later.
Byron said that while those early wins were great, it was hard to get momentum from them since he and the team were still learning the Next Gen car.
“Even though we won early, we didn’t know the car, or understand the car,” Byron said. “We were kind of just adapting to what we had and we were just making the most of an unpredictable situation with the entire field.”
His quick success carried over to the rest of the season where he made it to the Round of 8 and finished sixth in the season standings. Byron also led the second-most laps last season at 746, only behind eventual champion Joey Logano in the No. 22 Ford Mustang for Team Penske with 784 laps led. Byron led 212 laps in his Martinsville win alone to catapult him straight to the contender discussion.
Winning again at Phoenix not only showed Byron’s acceleration out of the gate but also shows that he may be the driver to beat this season.
Byron is the fastest driver to reach two wins in a season since 2020 when Logano also won at Las Vegas and Phoenix within the first four races, albeit his wins were not consecutive like Byron’s.
The last two seasons have seen the first repeat winner at Martinsville. In 2021, Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 driver Martin Truex Jr. won his second race of the year at the paper clip after also winning at Phoenix. Truex Jr. went on to make the Championship 4 that season.
Byron’s win this year at Phoenix comes with the debut of a brand-new aerodynamic package that he said made things more difficult.
“I think our processes this week were kind of frustrating because we didn’t really get to do the things we wanted to do,” Byron said. “Everyone was a little tired. We did that Charlotte test and there was just a lot going on on the outside. It was a little frustrating going into today, but it’s cool to see that we can overcome those things and still get a win.”
His two race wins and three stage victories across just the first four races this season give Byron 13 playoff points that will be very useful when the postseason comes around. His team is already set on getting some more and looks to get back to work quickly.
“Our focus is nothing different now,” Fugle said. “Hit the reset button and how do we do it again? Put the hard work in every single day and keep grinding.”
The No. 24 team will look to win three races in a row on Sunday, March 19 in the Ambetter Health 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Byron got his first win last season.
The green flag is set to wave at 3 p.m. EST with coverage on FOX, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.