By Dustin Albino

When William Byron climbed out of his No. 24 Chevrolet at Martinsville Speedway, he immediately sat down next to his car. He just completed one of the most grueling races of his six-year Cup Series career.

Byron was worn out. He dumped a water bottle over his body with his cheeks rosy. Throughout the Xfinity 500, he couldn‘t get cool air to his head. 

“I train and do a lot of things to try and be better,” Byron said. “I just had this issue both races here where I couldn‘t get my head cool. It was a really hard fought battle. Super thankful for my team. My crew chief, Rudy [Fugle], knew what buttons to push to keep me in the game.”

Byron entered the penultimate race weekend of the season in a solid position. It was hard to imagine he‘d give up 37 points on the elimination line. All he needed was a standard race and his quest for winning his first Cup Series championship would carry on to the final weekend of the season. 

This weekend, however, was anything but standard for Byron. 

The No. 24 Chevrolet struggled to find speed in practice and Byron qualified 16th, third worst among playoff drivers. He was chattering the rear tires in qualifying, but still felt content with what he had entering the elimination race. The more he thought about it, though, the worse it got. 

“I was so nervous sleeping last night,” Byron added. “I don‘t think I said a word to Erin [Blaney, Byron‘s girlfriend] on the way here in the car. I was so nervous. I had that feeling in my stomach. It‘s nothing against all the work that we put in, but I didn‘t have the feeling in the car that I wanted and I knew it was going to be a battle.”

A battle it was. 

Byron moved up to 12th by the end of the opening stage, but missed out on scoring any stage points. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin won the stage, chopping off 10 of the 37 points he was down entering Martinsville. Ryan Blaney placed second in the stage, knocking off nine points. 

The second stage was nearly identical to the first. The primary difference was Byron faded to 20th, at times running outside of the top 20 and he couldn‘t move forward. Blaney edged out Hamlin for the stage win, with both drivers banking 19 stage points to Byron‘s zero. The 20-point gap Byron had on Blaney prior to the race had evaporated and, if there was a new winner who was on the outside of the elimination looking in, the No. 24 team would be in real trouble. 

“I didn‘t feel like we had the balance,” Byron said. “It‘s safe to say we were realistic about that; we just hoped the track would come to us. It didn‘t, but that‘s racing and that‘s why there are [36] guys out there. There are guys that had it worse than us even, we just had to battle. We were probably going to run 21st if we kept falling out. I was falling out, physically, but the car wasn‘t.”

Throughout the second half of the race, Fugle, who credited the No. 24 team‘s engineer Brandon McSwain, continued making the necessary adjustments on the car. Eventually, they had it going in the right direction as Byron had his best run of the race during the final green-flag stretch of 168 laps. 

“We‘re trying to do everything in the car that we can from yesterday to today to have something we can work with and put as much adjustability in the car,” Fugle said. “We did a decent job at that because we got the car better. Just try to keep William in the game and let him know when you get the track position that nobody is faster.”

Fugle used Martin Truex Jr. as an example. Truex finished the opening stage in third, but could never rebound from a speeding penalty during the second stage. But seeing the No. 24 car struggle was “embarrassing” for Fugle. It‘s among the most stress he‘s experienced atop the pit box, though he persisted Byron on while assuring his driver that the team believed in him. 

“It doesn‘t get any more stressful than that,” Fugle said. “You can‘t do anything for these long runs. You‘ve got to work on the car and it‘s super hard to pass even when you get the car better. We were able to get the car better and hold position, maybe pick up a couple of spots here or there. We were not good enough to drive through the field and there were a couple of guys that were good enough to drive through.”

While some cars had to pit for fuel with the laps waning down and other cars falling off more than Byron, the No. 24 car took the checkered flag in 13th. With Blaney scoring the win, Byron had an eight-point buffer on Hamlin for the final spot into the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway. 

“It was hell in a bottle,” Byron said of his day. “I‘ve never been so mad at a racecar. I‘ve never wanted to get so much and been so frustrated at the car with how loose I was, how tight I was at spots. I had no grip. 

“We deserve to go to Phoenix and it‘s nice to see it pay off.”

Now, Byron heads to the championship race, arguably the favorite to win the 2023 championship. It was the No. 24 car that won at Phoenix in the spring.

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