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Analysis
NASCAR Cup Daytona II

Byron's dominant Watkins Glen win shows playoff potential

William Byron’s dominant NASCAR Cup win Sunday at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International should remove any doubt he will be a serious contender for the 2023 championship.

Race winner William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro

After an up-and-down start to his Cup career at Hendrick Motorsports, Byron and his No. 24 Chevrolet team have shown tremendous development over the last year-and-a-half, particularly with the addition of crew chief Rudy Fugle.

Any remaining question as to Byron’s role as a legitimate title threat this season should have been answered emphatically with his victory Sunday for two important reasons.

First, an issue which has plagued Byron in previous seasons – starting strong but fading late in the year – had come to light of late with five straight races without a top-10 finish just as he found himself in the hunt for the regular season title.

This time, however, Byron and his team responded with a powerful return to relevance, leading 66 of the 90 laps and beating Denny Hamlin by almost three seconds for his series-leading fifth victory of the 2023 season.

“They definitely needed a pick me up,” Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon said of Byron’s team. “When you fall out of the lead of the regular season points and you know that you’re capable of winning more races and you don’t capitalize on that, then that gets frustrating.

“It’s wild the way the season works today. It just seems like there’s more ebbs and flows and kind of waves that you go in and out of more so than in the past, and maybe it’s just because of how tight the competition is.

“Those five races that didn’t go the way they wanted them to, that (win) just puts it in the rear-view mirror. I think it’s all just looking forward now.”

William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, RaptorTough.com Chevrolet Camaro

William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, RaptorTough.com Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images

Byron said the debut of the Next Gen car in 2022 led to a “tough” season.

“We hit the ground running, and we had some good results early. Even back to (preseason) testing, we were really fast in testing,” he said.

“Then, it seemed like the car evolved, and we struggled to kind of adapt and evolve with it a little bit through the summer and in the fall, we showed up with a lot of speed again. I think in the fall last year saw a lot of potential.”

That potential is now being realized.

The second most important take from Byron’s win Sunday comes from the track on which it came – a road course.

Since joining the Cup series, Byron had devoted a lot of time trying to develop his road racing craft but had been unable to secure a victory in one of the races.

His previous eight Cup victories had shown an ability to win on short tracks, intermediates and superspeedways. A road course win seemed the only missing piece to his driver puzzle.

No longer.

“I think road courses this year have been really tough for us,” Byron, 25, said. “I think we started the year strong at COTA, had top-two speed. (Tyler) Reddick was the car to beat, but we were a close second there.

“I felt like we could build on that for the rest of the year, and I got excited for the road courses, and then we just went through a slump there with Sonoma and Chicago where it was just really tough for us, and we struggled.”

Byron felt the team turned a corner two weeks ago at the Indy Road Course, but multiple pre-race inspection failures left him starting from the rear of the field and with only one caution in the race, he never had an opportunity to see what he could do with good track position.

William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro

William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports, Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro

Photo by: John Harrelson / NKP / Motorsport Images

A second place starting position at Watkins Glen got him and his team off to the strong start they needed.

“It’s cool to get that first road course win. It’s taken a lot of effort,” Byron said. “A big thanks to Max (Papis) and everything that we’ve kind of put into it. It’s nice to see it pay off.”

Gordon said it’s clear Byron now is “capable of winning everywhere.”

“I know for us as we look at drivers and evaluate drivers, that’s what you're looking for is somebody that’s diverse, somebody that’s aggressive but also knows how to save the equipment when they need to, somebody that can stay calm in stressful situations,” Gordon said.

“You want them well-rounded as far as the tracks that they compete on, but you want them well-rounded as a person, too. You see William’s demeanor, he’s pretty calm and cool off the track, but he’s aggressive on the track.

“That’s everything you can ask for out of a driver.”

And exactly what is required to win a championship.

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