AVONDALE, Ariz. – The No. 24 is synonymous with success, excellence and high standards in the world of NASCAR Cup Series racing.
From 1992 to 2015, Jeff Gordon put the No. 24 car in Victory Lane on 93 different occasions at a myriad of tracks from coast to coast. However, prior to Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway, it was 5,629 days since the No. 24 car won consecutive weekends in a season.
From Oct. 6, 2007, to Oct. 13, 2007, Jeff Gordon tallied back-to-back wins respectively at Talladega Superspeedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. When Gordon accomplished this feat at age 36, William Byron was only nine years old.
Fast forward nearly 15 and a half years later to a 1-mile track just 30 miles to the southwest of Phoenix, Arizona. Gordon may have traded his fire suit for a vest and business attire, but his ride’s second successor, Byron, is one of the most competitive, cunning 25-year-old racers in NASCAR.
Although Byron looked up to Jimmie Johnson when he embarked on his racing career, he has showcased his place and worth with continuing the No. 24’s legacy in competitive stock car racing.
Following a dominant victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Mar. 5, Byron entered Sunday’s race with confidence and poise after nabbing the third starting spot. Immediately, Byron took the lead from Kyle Larson on Lap 2, holding onto the top spot to win Stage 1.
Tallying a runner-up result in Stage 2, Byron slipped to fourth place in the waning moments of the race, a still respectable position given his Las Vegas triumph. A late race caution inside the final 10 laps brought Byron and his No. 24 Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro team back into the hunt.
Much like Gordon, Byron capitalized with this opportunity, or two, in terms of striking in the final moments. Byron drove to the outside of Kyle Larson on the race’s sole Overtime restart, clearing past his teammate off Turn 2.
Without a doubt, Byron showcased that he could win in a multitude of ways from a textbook, dominant performance to attacking in the late going despite the odds.
Despite the incredible run, Byron knows how tough it is to win at the highest level of NASCAR, especially in a crunch time moment.
“I wasn’t counting my blessings. I was kind of like, ‘Man, it went so good last week, I’m probably going to end up crashing here,'” Byron said. “When you have that level of commitment, you know you have on a green-white-checkered to come out the other side. It’s either going to go really good or not.”
Perhaps “Big Bad” Byron may be “Mr. Cool” despite the intense, high stakes pressure with trying to deliver in the clutch, especially at a tenacious track like Phoenix Raceway.
“Yeah, I don’t love winning races that way,” he said. “It’s very stressful. It’s a lot of tactics going on with the restarts. But it’s fun.
“It’s a good challenge for us because you’re all tired, you’re all into that long-run mode mentally, then you have to have a pit stop and somehow reset and get into how do I get a good restart.”
Considering Byron’s meteoric rise in NASCAR, especially in the Craftsman Truck and Xfinity Series in 2016 and 2017, one had to wonder when the North Carolinian was going to produce similar numbers in Cup.
After a rough and tumble rookie season in 2018 and respectable showings from 2019 to 2022, perhaps the tide has turned for Byron.
In this case, perhaps Byron is making an early season statement that he is the real McCoy and young talent so coveted by Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports.
Aside from his coming of age moment in Cup, perhaps he is more mature and realizing his potential at the ripe old age of 25.
“I’m very impatient, so I like things to happen quick,” Byron said. “That’s how it happened for me coming up through. This level is so different. Took a lot of homework, a lot of details. I think the fact that I started later than most driving was a little bit — it took some time to bridge that gap at this level.
“Now that gap is bridged obviously. Yeah, I just feel like it’s a constant evolution, just trying to continue to get better.”
As Jeff Gordon, Vice Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, observed, it was only a matter of time before Byron realized his potential.
“I see a progression with William ever since he came to Hendrick,” Gordon said. “Got to remember how young he was coming into the Cup Series, so much to learn. Young in racing in so many ways.
“When Rudy came to Hendrick, the instant connection and chemistry between these two was so obvious. It just took the whole team up to another notch. I think now they’re just building on that. It’s a lot of fun to watch and see.”