The level of excitement was the same to William Byron when he compared Sunday night’s win at Homestead-Miami Speedway to his previous victory in the NASCAR Cup Series at Daytona International Speedway last August.
Although his first win in the series came 26 races deep into the schedule last season and his second win took just a short three races this year, the result of both victories was the same: Byron earned a spot in NASCAR’s 16-team playoffs that start in September. The feeling of winning was the same, too, Byron said.
“The excitement of being on the track and being kind of the last guy out there and doing these interviews and doing all that stuff is all the same,” Byron said. “So I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”
What Byron added, however, was that the win “was more indicative, I think, of the season we can have.”
“I’ve spent a lot of my Cup Series career kind of on the bubble of the playoffs and now I don’t have to worry about that,” Byron said. “It’s crazy. I’m going to take all that stuff in, and (I’ve) just got a great team, got an awesome crew chief. It’s going to be a fun year.”
Byron was on the points bubble in 2020 and battled former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot in the last regular season race, which Byron won. He was eliminated from playoffs after the first round, but he and new No. 24 Chevrolet crew chief Rudy Fugle sounded confident an early win this year could help change the narrative at the end of the season.
Byron said the win helps reduce some stress after two bottom-half finishes to start the season.
Fugle said the plan was to keep attacking given all the “weird winners.”
Byron’s win, the second in his career, followed on the heels of two straight victories by first-time Cup winning drivers in Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell.
Bell’s situation more closely identifies with Byron’s as a young driver in top-tier equipment. McDowell’s win at the Daytona 500 was his first win in 358 Cup races driving for a smaller team, but all the season-opening race winners have something in common in that their early wins were viewed as unexpected.
“I don’t think we’re weird but it kind of is a little bit weird,” Fugle said. “You have to be careful that you’re not going to get too many one wins, so you want to keep attacking for that reason.”
The start of the 2021 season has included unexpected names, and Sunday’s race proved that trend would continue on intermediate tracks. While drivers like Martin Truex Jr. (third-place finish), Kevin Harvick (fifth place) and Denny Hamlin (11th) were a presence in the top-10 throughout the race, so were drivers like McDowell (sixth), Chris Buescher, who won the first stage and led the second-most number of laps with 57, and Tyler Reddick, who finished in second place to tie his career-best Cup Series finish. Seven different teams finished in the top 10.
The parity among the field can partially be attributed to NASCAR’s rules against updating certain parts of the car in preparation for an industry-wide transition to the Next Gen car in 2022. Teams are also following the same practice-restricted protocols during the pandemic and NASCAR has not implemented any recent overhaul of the rules.
“I think it’s just the box that we work in is so small,” Truex said. “And the longer we have the same rules package, the closer everybody is going to get.”
But Truex said he thinks the typically strong teams will end up being the teams to beat “when all is said and done.”
“We’ve been really fast,” Truex said. “We had some tough breaks in Daytona and then we were in the hunt today. We’re feeling good about things and hopefully we can just continue to find some stuff to get better and keep running up front.”
McDowell called it “stinking awesome” that he was in a situation Sunday where he was chasing down Kevin Harvick with five laps to go for a top-10 finish. He’s had an unprecedented start to the season with three top-10 finishes for his No. 34 Ford team. McDowell said that NASCAR’s rules have definitely “closed the gap” but that he sees the top teams, which would include last year’s Championship 4 drivers, Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Hamlin, remaining the same this year.
“They just consistently do it just a tad better,” McDowell said. “Pit road, execution, lighter, faster, more downforce. We’ll just take it as it goes.”
But McDowell now sits at fourth in points, above both Elliott and Keselowski. And playoff drivers from last year, including Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto, are deep in a hole in points after the first three races. They sit in 24th and 34th place, respectively.
It’s still early in the season and there’s a lot more racing to go, but if Byron, Bell or McDowell makes it back to Victory Lane before a previous playoff name, or another “new” winner emerges, it might make us reconsider who deserves the top-team title.