By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Rookie phenom William Byron hasn’t had the results fans, critics and the team would’ve hoped for after three races, but that all changed after scoring a career-best 12th in Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway.
More importantly than a top-15 effort, Byron led his first-ever laps in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. The collegiate driver put his No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 on top of the scoring pylon for 15 laps.
Byron’s road to the lead started on Lap 190, when the sixth and final caution came out for Paul Menard’s crash in Turn 2.
Running in 12th, Byron’s team went for right-side tires and exited out of pit road in first.
With older left-side tires, it was evident four fresh Goodyear Eagles would outlast those with two and Byron was no exception as a hungry trio led by Denny Hamlin made it difficult on him.
Hamlin took the lead on Lap 210, but Byron didn’t give up without a fight and had a nice battle.
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick then joined the party, both passing Byron. The young driver had to back off and settled for fourth in that exchange.
For the remainder of the race, Byron had his hands full with his car running free, unable to regain the lead.
Despite coming up short of his first Cup top-10 in just his only fourth series start, Byron said going with two tires to get the lead favored his car handling.
“I think the two tires worked for us, just the way our car was handling, we were really tight all day and we couldn’t really get that out of it,” Byron said. “But, the middle stage of the race we started running closer to the top 10, ninth or 10th, I think, and that was the perfect call at the time. I was a little, I guess, not sure if it was going to work out just because we had done it already one time. But, it worked out, we could kind of keep some clean air and I think that was a net gain for sure.”
Byron added that leading his first 15 laps in NASCAR’s premiere series showcased what he’s capable of doing, including race restarts that helped him hold on to the lead.
“I mean, I think it just showed myself that I can do it that I can do those restarts up there,” Byron added. “I know I have the pace up there to run until our handling kind of took over, but I felt like if we can really start to hone in on what we need a little better weare going to be right there. It’s going to take a little bit of work, but it was fun to at least be up there a little bit.”
Heading into next Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, Byron trails Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr. by nine points in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings and improved his points position from 23rd to 21st.