AVONDALE, Ariz. — Teamwork is an essential part of motorsports as there is more than just the driver. At times, an entire crew can make a difference in an organization’s success.
For William Byron and the entire No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports crew, it is what built them into a championship contending team in 2023. Led by crew chief Rudy Fugle, it has been this squad’s finest year that can be capped off with the Bill France Trophy after Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway.
Despite being the sport’s class of the field with six wins, Byron’s road to the Championship 4 hit a rough patch at Martinsville Speedway last Sunday, a track where HMS have been dominant since the team’s inception in 1984, Byron was not in the mix for the win, but Fugle and company never gave up on improving the No. 24 Chevrolet.
As unideal finishing in 13th and being a lap behind title rival Ryan Blaney may have been, Martinsville was a highlight of how the team is able to overcome adversity. It is what got them to the big dance in the first place as Byron hope there’s zero signs of struggling in the season’s final 312 laps.
“We put together such a good year. To make it all the way to Martinsville and feel like your chances are slipping away was definitely kind of demoralizing, depressing,” said Byron. “Now we have a new life for our team. This is what our goal was, to make the Championship 4. I think any team would say that. Now we feel like, I mean, we have nothing to lose.”
Fugle was relieved the No. 24 team made it to the Championship 4 as intended. No matter if Byron wins the title Sunday or not, he will have a discussion about Martinsville in greater detail, especially to avoid folks such as Denny Hamlin, who in his podcast, labeled Byron as extremely nervous.
For now, it is all about getting the job done at the one-mile oval.
“It helps that we made it. We have an ultrafocus for this week,” said Fugle. “You can’t carry that stuff. We race way too much to carry that with you. We’ll probably talk about Martinsville again in probably 10 days. We talked about it real quick Monday morning, and we were done and over with.”
Byron has a chance of becoming the first North Carolina born racer to win the Cup championship since Dale Jarrett in 1999. Additionally, Byron hopes to bring the No. 24 its first championship since Jeff Gordon in 2001, a season where he won six races. Furthermore, Byron, like teammate Kyle Larson, is in position to give Hendrick Motorsports its 15th Cup championship to cap off their 40th season of existence.
With a lot to consider, Byron will remain relaxed and gather as much information from his crew in order to deliver his finest race in his still relatively young Cup career.
“It’s just staying cool, staying collected, trying to give the information that we need to be there at the very end. What do we need for the last final run of the race? That’s what is key,” said Byron. “I’m going to talk about that with my crew chief, as we get further in the weekend, how do we position ourselves for that final stop, that final run. That’s all that counts.
“If you can lead the last lap, that’s all that really matters. It’s different than the few weeks in the past where there has been panic because you’ve been counting points and looking at stages. Stages mattered probably last week more than the end of the race did. It’s really an interesting format. I’ve been educated on it this year of just what really matters. But this race is all about the final run.”
Maturity has been a characteristic folks have brought up about Byron since joining the Cup Series in 2018. Owner Rick Hendrick commented about how much the 25-year-old has honed his craft, comparing him to Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and even Byron’s current teammate, Larson, who is looking for his second Cup title in three years.
“William is very mature for his age. He’s come a long way in a short period of time. To be a champion at his age or win more races than anybody has this year shows his talent and the talent of that team,” said Hendrick. “William’s kind of been under the radar. For a guy that’s won six races, had a chance to win the regular-season championship, for him to accomplish what he has, he’s kind of been under the radar.
“Nobody has talked about him a lot. If you look at what he’s been able to do, it’s pretty impressive. At his age, the chemistry between he and Rudy, I think there will be a lot of championships in their horizon.”
A year ago, Fugle began calling shots for Byron in Cup, but it is far from their first rodeo together. When Byron was a teenager, looking to make his name in NASCAR, Fugle was his crew chief at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016 and things clicked.
The duo won seven races, but an engine failure at Phoenix denied Byron from making the Truck Series Championship 4 at Homestead.
As Byron moved up to Xfinity where he won a title with JR Motorsports, Fugle stayed at KBM until the end of 2020. In that span, Fugle has led drivers such as Busch, Greg Biffle and Championship 4 contender Christopher Bell to wins and a championship with the latter.
When the two reunited, their chemistry blossomed over time. Racing aside, it is their bond outside of racing that stood out as they banter about different things, including fantasy football.
“We BS a lot. We text a lot. I mean, it’s funny, he’s a funny texter. I’ll send him a long paragraph of things. He’ll say, 10-4,” Byron on Fugle. “He’s the kind of guy that takes a lot of information in. We work well together.
“I can be a sounding board to him. He can learn from what I’m saying and trying to make the car better. We spend a lot of time during the week just talking about the car, talking about what we need on the weekend.”
Coincidentally, Byron and Fugle are facing each other this weekend. Whoever wins that battle, it will not really matter as a Cup championship is more important than who’s leading their league.
“If there’s one week that we probably don’t give a hoot about, (it’s) Fantasy is this week,” said Byron. “It’s funny we’re playing each other. I’ll have to mess with him about that.”
Another facet about Byron is the press bringing up his girlfriend Erin Blaney, who is Ryan’s sister and also fighting for a championship. Like Hendrick Motorsports having a 50/50 chance of winning the Cup with Byron or Larson, Erin will be in that same boat with her boyfriend or brother winning the Cup.
“I’m sure she’ll be stressed. She doesn’t lead it on. She’s really good about just kind of hiding it,” Byron said. “I think she’ll really be stressed during the race. It’s going to be fun. I think she’s excited. She’s excited for me. She was really happy that I got in, so it will be cool.”
At the end of the day, all the pre-race chat will come to a close and all Byron will be focusing on is winning from the pole in Sunday’s finale. The nerves will be there, but Byron already knows it is expected when a lot is on the line.
Byron’s experience with winning the NASCAR XFINITY Sries title under the Playoff format could come in handy.
“I think that having that experience was something that really stuck with me to get in the Cup Series,” said Byron. “I don’t feel any different this week. I feel like it’s a lot of pressure to get to the Final 4. I feel like all of us would say that it’s a big accomplishment to get here.
“You’d like to have this every year. You’d like to this the same meaning behind the championship weekend. I’m excited. I feel like we have a great opportunity.”