Byron charges to Playoff spot with maiden win at Daytona

Byron charges to Playoff spot with maiden win at Daytona
Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing

On a night when William Byron just had to amass enough points to advance to the Playoffs, he put an exclamation on the process by collecting his first career Cup win. 

Byron, 22, became just the second driver ever to win in the No. 24—and he accomplished the task at Daytona International Speedway as the Coke Zero Sugar 400 went into overtime.

The victory, his first in 98 Cup starts, automatically secured a spot on the Playoff grid for the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

“This is incredible,” Byron said. “It’s been a hard couple of years in the Cup Series and trying to get my first win and gel with this team. These guys did an awesome job today and got us in the Playoffs and it’s amazing."

Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Brendan Gaughan, Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 10.

But as Byron celebrated, Jimmie Johnson limped home in 17th after the No. 48 Chevrolet was collected in the second ‘big one’ with two laps to decide the contest. In his final full-year in Cup, the seven-time champion will experience the post-season outside of the Playoffs after finishing six points behind Matt DiBenedetto.

“We had a really good car,” Johnson said. “The last couple of months, we’ve been really getting our act together and running well. Definitely disappointed to not be in the Playoffs – that was the number one goal to start the year. But when I look back at the disqualification at Charlotte and then missing the Brickyard 400 due to my COVID-19 positive test and only miss it by six points—we did all that we could this year.”

The Charlotte DQ and the position COVID-19 created a deficit Johnson wasn’t able to overcome. Despite his disappointment, the champ dropped by Victory Lane to congratulate the No. 24 team before heading to his motorcoach.

“Congratulations to my teammate getting his first Cup win like that,” Johnson said. “This setting and the drama to go with it—that’s a big win for Chad Knaus and William Byron. I’m really happy for those guys. I really felt like we had a way to transfer, to win, or point our way in the way it went in the first two stages. Things just got ugly down in turn one. Unfortunate, but that’s plate racing.”

Joey Logano won the first stage on Lap 50 with Johnson and Byron finishing fifth and seventh, respectively, and adding to their points total. Clint Bowyer was added to the Playoff grid after Stage 1.

The race restarted on Lap 56 and went caution-free until the conclusion of Stage 2 with Logano once again collecting the green-white-checkered flag. Johnson finished fifth again with DiBenedetto in seventh and Byron 11th—outside of bonus-point range.

Logano quickly gave up the lead to Martin Truex Jr. at the start of the final stage. The lead quickly turned over nine times as different manufacturer packs came to the pits. Kyle Busch took control of the race on Lap 133 and had led 18 circuits with 10 laps to decide the race. He traded the point with his brother Kurt before Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin moved to the point on Lap 152.

Tyler Reddick, who was running second, moved to the low lane. As he attempted to return to the top line, he was late on a block and clipped Kyle Busch in the process. Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Truex, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece were collected in the Turn 4 accident.

“There was about three times I was in it—until I wasn’t,” Byron told crew chief Chad Knaus over the radio. Knaus replied, “I don’t know how the hell you missed that.”

NASCAR red-flagged the race for 10 minutes and 13 seconds before the action resumed with five laps remaining. Logano pushed Hamlin then moved low to the lead two laps later. As he came upon the No. 11 Toyota in Turn 1, Hamlin got into the back of Logano and turned the No. 22 Ford into Bubba Wallace, causing the Penske driver’s right rear tire to go down directly in front of DiBenedetto. Wallace slid into the wall and Byron thread the needle between the Nos. 22 and 43.

Johnson wasn’t so lucky.

“I’m so thankful for Hendrick Motorsports and the career that I’ve had there, the relationship with Ally and their continued support for this race team,” Johnson added. “Cliff Daniels (crew chief) and these guys on my team—they pour their guts out for me. There’s 10 races left, 10 trophies to go chase and we’ll have to focus our efforts there.”

Once again, NASCAR red-flagged the race. After cleaning up debris from the 11-car wreck, Hamlin remained in the lead with Byron alongside. With a push from Christopher Bell, Byron jumped out front and held serve in overtime for the win.

“This is probably the hardest track to points-race,” said Byron, who qualified for his second opportunity in the post-season. “We had a great Stage 2 and kind of got back in the pack and got shuffled when everyone went single file. I thought my hopes were up there. And we were racing around the No. 21 (DiBenedetto) and the No. 48 (Johnson) in the final stage and I was like man, I’ve got to really make something happen.

“Luckily, I was able to push the No. 43 (Wallace) and he and the No. 22 (Logano) made some contact and opened up a hole for me, and I wasn’t going to lift. It was awesome.”

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