By David Morgan, Associate Editor
While all eyes were on the Playoff drivers on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, William Byron was trying his best to crash the party and score his first career win in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
At the same track that his team, Hendrick Motorsports, has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, the 21-year-old phenom, with veteran crew chief Chad Knaus at the helm, started the day in 11th and once he cracked the top-10, he would stay there for the remainder of the 500-lap marathon.
Byron would finish the first two stages in sixth-place, eventually climbing his way to second-place during a flurry of late race restarts. Only Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex, Jr. stood between him and taking the lead and a chance at his first win at NASCAR’s highest level.
Lap after lap, Byron hounded Truex for the lead, but in the end, Truex was just too strong and Byron would have to settle for a runner-up finish, tying his career best finish.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Byron said when asked if he had anything for Truex at the end of the race. “He was really strong. I could work my brake bias a little bit in the car and gain a little bit and then I’d get to him and I’d heat them up a lot and kind of fall back. So, I don’t really know. He was super strong.
“Our car bounced a little bit on the short run, which was tough to kind of get around, but overall it was a really good day. This isn’t a place that I’ve loved coming to, and it just clicked this weekend. The things we did with the car going into qualifying and then obviously our race. So, I’m super excited, but second is not super fun either. So, we’ll try to get one spot better next time.”
As the laps wound down, the question on everyone’s mind was would Byron use his bumper to move Truex, a Playoff contender, out of the way to take the lead and the win?
For Byron, the answer was simple.
“Yeah, I mean, whatever it takes. I wouldn’t race him dirty, but I’m really hungry for my first win, so whatever it takes. But, he ran such a good race, I think he would have been able to drag the brake and do all he could to keep me behind him anyway. So, it was close.”
As he celebrated the win, Truex took some time to give some props to Byron for his strong run. With Byron driving the No. 24 Chevrolet, Truex noted after the race that the way Byron ran on Sunday was reminiscent of the way Jeff Gordon used to drive at Martinsville.
“My original thought was did they put Jeff Gordon back in that car because he was so good here,” Truex said. “So I was like, damn, Jeff is giving him tips or something. Jeff was amazing here. So to see the 24 running that good was pretty cool, first off, and he did an amazing job.
“He’s really good on restarts, and I felt like every time — even midway through the race when he got to second, there was a lot of times we were in tons of traffic and I kept looking back there and he was just hanging around. So he did a really good job of hanging around all day long, and then at the end, you know, I was just trying to get good restarts and make sure I could get a little bit of a gap.
“I knew he was hungry. I knew he’s never won before, so I knew he was probably willing to do just about anything to get a win, and I just tried my best to try to get a little bit of a gap because I honestly didn’t want him anywhere near me with two or three laps to go.”