William Byron faced two challenges this week: acclimating to the Next Gen car and devising a way to rebound from a devastating start to the NASCAR Cup Playoffs.
The first task was simple enough. Byron was one of eight drivers to participate in a two-day Goodyear tire test at Daytona International Speedway.
In a controlled environment, the competitors ran through a variety of exercises to prepare for Next Gen’s debut in the 2022 Daytona 500 just five months from now. Byron noticed a marked difference in the car from when he tested—and destroyed--an early prototype in March 2020.
“I feel like it’s very different in terms of the details,” Byron said. “The rear-view camera, that’s a big difference that I think we all underestimated the ability of that. The interior design of the car was a lot more similar to the current car than I thought it would be. We spent a lot of time at the shop trying to get that right and make sure my seat position was good. I sit slightly lower than I do in my current car, which I don’t like. So, we’re going to work on that.
“The steering is still a work in progress. I don’t know if it’s really the steering or if it’s the tire and the stiffness of the sidewall, and also the stiffness of the suspension parts and things. So, that’s an interesting work in progress because I feel like that’s going to throw some guys off because you’re not moving the wheel as much and the car is very responsive to everything. That’s interesting. Very normal in the shifter. I feel really good about that.”
NASCAR was close to reaching the speeds the sanctioning body had hoped to attain in the draft on Tuesday. However, the officials elected to decrease the size of the tapered spacer for Wednesday’s test, which lowered the engine output to 510 horsepower.
“The drafting aspect of the car was okay,” Byron said. “I think the speeds were a little bit lower than the current car, but some of the similar characteristics in pushing and things like that were still there.
“We made some good progress in terms of philosophy and ideas on the car. We did some drafting runs with the pack, which was good, and those went really well. So for me, it’s just all about continuing to learn. But I kind of put that in some box now and focus on this year because that’s ultimately what really matters right now. So, for me, right now, I’m just focused on the Playoffs.”
Byron’s next mission is overcoming the deficit following his 34th-place finish at Darlington Raceway on Sunday—not only the No. 24 team’s third wreck in the last four races but their third finish of 33rd or worse over that same period of time.
Following a remarkable run this spring, where Byron leapt to second in the standings with 11-consecutive top 10s, the 23-year-old racer finds himself 15th on the Playoff grid entering Richmond Raceway.
“Car performance and driver performance is really critical,” Byron said. “For us, I think it’s just to focus on getting the best finish we can and hopefully having a lot of speed. Based on our spring race at Richmond, we should have a lot of speed. I feel good about it.
“Richmond has not been a good place in the past for us, but this year it has. I feel like we can take that momentum and performance and apply it to this weekend and hopefully get ourselves above that Playoff bubble.”
In six starts at the .75-mile track, Byron has an average finish of 16.2 but scored his first top-10 result of seventh in April. His teammate Alex Bowman snookered a dominant Denny Hamlin in the closing laps of the Toyota Owners 400 for the win.
In last year’s Playoffs, Byron was eliminated from the Round of 12 after finishes of 21st at Richmond and 38th at Bristol.
“When I look at the Playoffs for myself, in general, it’s all about eliminating the big numbers,” Byron said. “I think that unfortunately, we had a big number this past weekend and not really of our making. Really, not of our making at all…So, I feel like for us, just going into Richmond, I mean we just have to have a smooth race. We have the speed, and we have the ability. We were top three or four in points all season long. A lot of the reason for that was because of our consistency and speed. Those two things are things that are going to get you through each round.
“We’ve just got to focus on the next two races. We’re only nine points out of the cut line, and I feel like if we just do our jobs, we’re going to be plenty good…It’s just a lot different situation than last year, overall. Our team is a lot different. I feel like our speed is very good. So, we are very capable of advancing through the round.”