Byron and the No. 24 team are saving the speed for where it matters

William Byron and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team haven’t had the strongest summer stretch in the NASCAR Cup Series, but that appears to have been by design.

Byron won four races through early July but then failed to earn a top-10 finish in the five races that followed. It’s been a running theme for Byron, crew chief Rudy Fugle and the team: a dip through July and into August.

It happened last year, too. Byron was victorious twice early in the season but then fell off through the summer and most of the playoffs. Not only did the speed disappear but the team failed to put together races.

But on Sunday afternoon Byron looked as strong as ever, picking up his fifth victory. He led 59 of 90 laps at Watkins Glen. As the postseason looms, Byron has 28 playoff points in his back pocket and even if he doesn’t win the regular-season championship, could very well be the No. 1 seed.


So, what’s been the difference this summer even if the results weren’t there? Aside from having speed, Byron’s team seemed to be experimenting a bit and didn’t get caught up in the racetracks that didn’t apply to the postseason.

“Some weeks that makes sense,” Fugle said. “Some weeks we’ve been off. Historically even when I was truck racing, I wasn’t super great. My teams weren’t super great in the summer. Just some oddball races that don’t line up – we put focus on every single race, but put the most amount of focus on the races to win a championship and the races to get you in that championship which is usually the first 10 and the last 10 and then the summer plays in different ways.

“We had fast cars at Michigan and Pocono and a couple of other places this summer that we didn’t have last year and that helped. We’ve had things happen. We weren’t afraid to try different strategies and take some gambles and that probably hurt us at times for finishes.”

Byron finished 14th at Pocono but led 60 laps. A 35th-place finish at Michigan was the result of hitting the wall and not being able to repair the car.

“Yeah, a little bit of both,” Fugle said. “It’s just kind of what happens. But it is really good to get the momentum going for the playoffs, and we’re super confident going into not only Daytona but going into Darlington. We’re working super-hard on that first round and hoping to move forward with that as soon as we can.”

The No. 24 team will head to Darlington (Sept. 3) having won the spring race at the facility. With the number of points that Byron has, getting through the first round shouldn’t be an issue. The second round gets stressful given the types of racetracks with Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Byron, who went into the postseason last year as the No. 5 seed, was eliminated in the round of eight. Those races are Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville. Byron won at Las Vegas earlier this year and has a victory at Martinsville from last season.

“I love the whole 10 races,” Fugle said. “They’re tracks that are good for us, tracks that we ran well at the beginning of the year, and tracks that we’ve just been strong on. Honestly, having a dip in the summer has made us work a lot harder from all aspects, so I think we’re going to have faster cars when the playoffs start. We’ll have more pace. Hopefully, we can execute and do the right things. That’s what the playoffs are about.

“With everything as tight as it has been in the Next Gen, it’s about execution. You can’t shoot yourself in the foot, you can’t speed, you can’t go to the back, you can’t spin out and wreck. Those mistakes are harder to overcome, so that’s our focus is execution, but every one of those races — Kansas we ran really well at, Darlington we ran really well. Bristol the two years I’ve been here we finished third, I think. Just really good races for us. Excited to go march to the playoffs.”

Byron has never made the Championship 4. The highest he has finished in the championship standings is 10th, which occurred last season.

“Out of all the crew chiefs I’ve worked with in my life – I think Chad [Knaus] was similar in his days with Jimmie [Johnson] – we really focus on those 10 races and focus on what that looks like and build our setups around that,” Byron said of why this year will be different. “I think we do kind of lose sight maybe in July and August of kind of what is still at play there, but I think we’re focused on those races. I feel good about our notebook for those tracks but there are also a lot of really good cars.

“(Denny Hamlin) has been fast, the 19 (Martin Truex Jr.) has been really fast, the 5 (Kyle Larson) has been really good. We’ve just got to keep building, but I think the tracks suit us well, and I think he knows those tracks really well. I feel like we’ll have good race cars there.”

Story originally appeared on Racer