Can William Byron carry Daytona momentum into the Playoffs?

Can William Byron carry Daytona momentum into the Playoffs?
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Crew chief Chad Knaus never suggested to William Byron that he, 'Drive it like you stole it,’ but that’s exactly what the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet did on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway. 

Byron's post-race grin implied as much. His race-winning move—coming from fourth to second as he squeezed between Joey Logano and Bubba Wallace on Lap 159 as chaos unfolded behind him—offered the driver a front-row starting position when the race went into over-time. 

And Byron made the most of it en route to his first career win and second Playoff berth.

“They bounced off each other,” Byron recounted. “The 22 (Logano) made a late block. They bounced off each other. I had already pushed the 43 (Wallace) into that hole, so I was committed. At that point, daylight opened up between the two cars after they bounced off each other. They kind of separated. 

“I had enough of a run to stick in it there and complete it practically. I was going to go for that because I needed the points and I needed to try to finish the race in first, second or third. I really had that in mind. As soon as that happened, I really went for it. Then the final restart was really me versus Denny (Hamlin) and the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.). It came down to just a couple guys. I had to try to make it happen there, too.”

Byron knew the time for riding was over. His Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson, who had passed the No. 24 team in the standings after he picked up 12 additional points in the first two stages, was caught in the melee triggered by Hamlin’s contact with Logano. Matt DiBenedetto had entered the regular-season finale with a five-point advantage over Byron and had maintained his position throughout the race. 

As the end game approached, Byron had to seize the moment.

“Once we got to two or three (laps) to go we had a great opportunity,” Byron said. “Typically, there's some things that happen on that final restart that I've noticed. We were just in the right position. Kind of being second there might have been a better position to be in. We're really fortunate that worked out, (Christopher Bell) was pushing us, then just had to be aggressive.”

Knaus, the only crew chief to boast 17 postseason appearances, was not hesitant to push his young driver. One week earlier, a shouting match ensued between the pair at Dover with neither backing down. Given the different dynamics of coaching a 22-year-old driver in just his third season on tour, compared with a seven-time champion such as Johnson, Knaus has had to adopt a different approach.

“Yeah, of course, obviously,” Knaus said. “I also had to change the way I was a crew chief for Jimmie from the way we started in 2002 to when we ended in (in 2018)…A good coach understands the situation and understands how to morph and adapt to the circumstances you're in. Working with William is a completely different set of circumstances than what it was working with a seven‑time championship driver.

“I think we've done a pretty good job. Great, no. But we've done a pretty good job. We have been able to make the Playoffs both years. Now we're fortunate enough to have a victory. Hopefully, we can get out there and have some success in the final 10 races.”

In order to advance beyond the first round, Knaus believes it will come down to execution. He feels comfortable about kicking off the Playoffs in Darlington—a track where all the Hendrick Chevys had speed in May, and Byron won a stage. 

“It's all in the details, right? We have to make sure that we execute properly,” Knaus said. “Going to Darlington, a great race track for us. We've run well there. Sat on the pole there last year, ran up front. Ran up front in the first race in the spring this year. Unfortunately, we had a loose wheel and crashed. Second race we ran reasonably. But we didn't execute the details as well as what we needed to.

“Getting back to Charlotte, getting back to work, executing the way we need to make sure we take a race car over there, I think we have a competitive opportunity to go there and run up towards the front. That's what we need to do. I'm not sure where we start. That's going to be critical with pit selection. If we can be up towards the front, get our legs out from underneath us, get going, we're going to be okay.”

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