Overlooked and underappreciated. That‘s the perception that has driven newly crowned DAYTONA 500 champion William Byron to achievements beyond his imagination.

Byron learned how to race on a computer, and when team owner Rick Hendrick promoted him to the NASCAR Cup Series as a 20-year-old in 2018, there were plenty of skeptics who looked askance at the move.

At 26, Byron is the youngest driver in an organization that includes six-time most popular driver Chase Elliott, who won the 2020 series championship; and Kyle Larson, the 2021 champion who often is described as a generational talent across a multitude of racing platforms.

“I‘m the other guy,” Byron said on Monday night after doing what no other Hendrick driver has been able to do since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the DAYTONA 500 in 2014.

In fact, Byron is the only current Hendrick driver who has ever won a Cup points event on the Daytona oval, where he claimed the first of his 11 career victories in the 2020 summer race.

Last year, Byron won a series-best six races and qualified for the Championship 4, finishing third in the final standings. Nevertheless, despite his obvious flair for superspeedway racing, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet opened at disrespectful 18-to-1 odds for the DAYTONA 500 at DraftKings Sportsbook.

“Yeah, I use it all as fuel, so just keep it coming,” Byron said. “All the preseason predictions and everything. I just try to stay quietly focused. I feel like for me, I do well having my own space and being able to work through the things with my race team…

“I don’t read too much into it. I’m never going to be the most vocal guy. I just enjoy getting in the race car and putting the helmet on and going to work. That’s what I’ve always lived for.”

One clear catalyst for Byron‘s career has been the pairing in 2021 with crew chief Rudy Fugle, who called the shots from the pit box when Byron broke into the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series with a seven-win season with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016.

Together, Byron and Fugle have won 10 Cup races at Hendrick Motorsports.

“William puts in the work,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in a Monday night post-race press conference. “That’s all he thinks about. He’s in the simulator. He’s watching tapes. He has worked so hard. People don’t realize how much time he puts in.

“But bringing Rudy on gave him that confidence, because they were so successful in the Truck Series, and, man, they just picked up and clicked. And when you think about his age and how smart he is and how he races like a guy that’s been doing it for a long time, doesn’t make many mistakes, but he just eats and drinks and sleeps winning. He puts in the work.”

In Monday‘s rain-delayed DAYTONA 500, the work paid off. Byron grabbed the lead after a restart with four laps left, took the white flag and was narrowly ahead of teammate Alex Bowman when NASCAR called the fifth and final caution for Ross Chastain‘s slide through the grass in the tri-oval.

The victory wasn‘t just a career-defining moment for Byron. It was the perfect kickoff for the year-long 40th anniversary celebration for Hendrick Motorsports, whose drivers, past and present, have amassed a series-best 302 victories since its founding in 1984. That was the season Geoff Bodine rescued a company on the brink of extinction with his win at Martinsville.

In breaking a decade-long DAYTONA 500 drought, Byron also gave Hendrick its ninth victory in the Great American Race, tying the organization with Petty Enterprises for most all-time.

“Tonight he told me, he said, ‘I never thought I’d race here, and now I’ve won the DAYTONA 500,‘” Hendrick said. “So pretty special.”

In the post-race celebration, no one seemed happier than Hendrick vice chairman Jeff Gordon, who drove the No. 24 Chevrolet to 93 victories and four series championships.

“I try not to be biased, but William is making it hard on me,” said Gordon, who won the DAYTONA 500 three times. “It‘s 2024, and the 24 is always going to be very, very special to me. But what I loved the most is seeing him make it his number and building that fan base — 24 fans have been around for a long time, but his own fans.

“A win like this, my gosh, this is going to elevate that up to the next level and bring a whole lot more new fans to the sport and for William. That’s what I get excited (about) and look forward to.”

It‘s also something Byron will have to get used to. And he may have to find a new source of motivation.

His days as “the other guy” are numbered.

— NASCAR Newswire —

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