William Byron started Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway ranked 15th among 16 championship hopefuls, a daunting 18 points below the cutoff point to advance to Round 2 of the NASCAR Playoff Series. Most of the self-styled “experts” on such things—including us—wrote/said the young college student was toast, that he’d never overcome that deficit and advance to Round 2 at Las Vegas, Talladega, and the Charlotte roval.
Did we say “experts?” Ha! Not in this case.
The 23-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver gave the kind of performance usually given only by retired Hendrick legends Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. After starting 14th, he ran within the top-10 most of the night, kept the nose of his No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro clean, and finished third behind teammate Kyle Larson and former champion Kevin Harvick, and ahead of Ryan Blaney, and Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman.
The eight stage points he earned plus his third-place points took him from 18 below the cut line going into Bristol to 12 above headed to Las Vegas. (That 18-point deficit after Round 1 was second only to Chase Elliott’s 22-point deficit after Round 2 of the 2019 Playoffs). Byron thus avoided being eliminated from the 10-race Playoffs like former champion Kurt Busch, Tyler Reddick, Michael McDowell, and Aric Almirola.
“Honestly, I don’t think I breathed for 100 laps, Byron said, visibly relieved to know he had gotten through to Round 2. “I was honestly just trying to go as hard as I could. I was trying to make as much speed as I could and felt that’s what our car had. I tried to hold off the 12 (Blaney) and drive as hard as I could. That’s a pretty awesome moment that we could pull through. Being 18 points out coming into this race and finishing third to advance is pretty amazing.”
That third-place couldn’t have come at a better time, and was as unexpected as it was important. Byron finished 34th in the Labor Day weekend Playoff opener at Darlington Raceway and was 19th the following weekend at Richmond Raceway. He finished in the 30s in two of the three races leading into the Playoffs … but was second at Michigan in the third race in that set. After showing well throughout most of the first half of the season, he and crew chief Rudy Fugle became irritatingly inconsistent in the summer and early fall.
They began the season with finishes of 26th and 33rd, then got their only 2021 victory at Homestead in March. They followed that with an impressive 12-race spell of 11 top-10 finishes, including five top-5s. There was another time when they were outside the top-10 in seven of 11 races, including a 35th, a 33rd, and a 37th, plus two finishes in the 20s. They’d have a handful of good runs followed by a handful of bad ones … basically taking three steps forward in the standings and two steps backward.
This year marked the third time Byron has been part of the Playoffs. He was seeded 12th in 2019, survived into Round 2 (where he was seeded 11th) before being eliminated. He was seeded ninth and eliminated after Round 1 last year, and is now into Round 2, seeded eighth.
The other 11 with him are teammates Larson, Elliott, and Bowman, former champions Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano, plus Blaney, Denny Hamlin, and Christopher Bell.
“Expert” picks, anyone? No, thank you.
Who’s your pick to win the Cup Championship? Start the discussion in the comments section below.
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