Byron Bags Daytona 500 win on Hendrick Motorsports’ 40th Anniversary

William Byron celebrates his win in Victory Lane - Getty Images for NASCAR
William Byron celebrates his win in Victory Lane – Getty Images for NASCAR

The comment this morning on X (formerly Twitter) was a classic: “Daytona: if you ain’t first, you crashed!”

And that’s the way it happened. William Byron, Hendrick Motorsports’ 26-year-old driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 racecar, brought his steed first to the double caution/checkered flags after 200 laps around Daytona International Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval.

Delayed for a day to 4PM Monday, after rain inundated the track both Saturday and Sunday, forcing both the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series to conduct their season openers a day – or two – later than expected. The Daytona 500 Cup Series opener ended under caution after the prototypical “Big One” took place with eight laps to go.

There were 41 lead changes among 20 slivers, with pole sitter Joey Logano’s Team Penske Ford leading the most laps, 45, before getting punted in the next-to-last caution and ending up in 32nd place, just behind 2023 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Chevy.

The race-ending caution was one of five such periods, with an early crash-induced yellow, for Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevy, the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford Mustang Dark Horse of Harrison Burton, the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Mustang of Ryan Preece (who recovered to finish 23rd, one lap down), John Hunter Nemechek’s No. 42 Legacy Motor ClubToyota Camry XSE (finishing seventh), rookie Carson Hocevar’s Chevy and Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champion racing with and co-owning Legacy Motor Club’s trio of Toyotas (he would finish 28th in his No. 84 Camry.

Two of the remaining three cautions were taken up by stage-ending yellows, while the final two cautions were for multi-car pileups and, in the instance of the fourth yellow on Daytona’s back stretch, necessitated a red-flag period. The penultimate yellow collected 23 cars, most of which continued once the green came out for a final dash to the checkers. Of course, cautions do tend to breed cautions, and once the green flags flew on lap 197, it was anyone’s guess who would cause the final action. Hint: it was Byron and teammate Alex Bowman (No. 48), who finished first and second.

Even with the last 10 laps causing many of the 40 starters to drop off the lead lap, fully 20 cars completed all 200 laps, with part-timer David Ragan, customarily working with broadcasters, keeping his cool in the RFK (Roush Fenway Keselowski) No. 60 Mustang to finish 20th last night.

Byron leads Hendrick Motorsports teammate Bowman to the yellow/checkered flags – Getty Images for NASCAR

The final lap caution that gave Byron his 11th career NASCAR Cup Series victory on exactly the same day – 40 years later – that team owner Rick Hendricks made his first foray into Cup Series competition, saw NASCAR initially decline to throw the yellow flag when then-leader Ross Chastain, in Trackhouse Racing’s No. 1 Chevy and Austin Cindric’s No. 2 Team Penske Mustang got together. The duo spun before the start/finish line and NASCAR hoped they could continue, but once Cindric began to move up the track, NASCAR decided it had to end the race under caution.

It was a let-down for sure to have the Daytona 500 finish under yellow and checkered flags, for everyone except Hendrick Motorsports. As Jeff Gordon explained post-race, “It’s been a decade since Hendrick Motorsports has won the Daytona 500 and, through those years I think what we’e gained is an appreciation more so than ever is how difficult this race is to win. All the different things that have to line up in order for you to win it, then also how exciting and fun and amazing it is to win it,” he said.

Byron joins Gordon, who has three Daytona 500 victories for Hendrick Motorsports, with Jimmie Johnson (two wins), and single-time victors Dale Earnhardt J., Geoff Bodine and Darrell Waltrip who drove to Victory Lane for Rick Hendrick’s team.

Gordon, of course, used to drive the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports and, while he tries not to be biased, “William is making it hard on me. It is 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 of his own fans.”

Rick Hendrick, who waited 10 years between wins in this Great American Race remarked, “It’s been a drought winning this race. We’ve led a lot of laps and I just refused to get excited,” until the checkered flag, when he duly marched to the start/finish line to congratulate his winning driver.

“When I think back 40 years and coming down here and feeling like I didn’t belong, seeing Junior Johnson and the Pettys and Wood Brothers, and man, here we were with five full-time people and no sponsor, and [we still] finished in the top 10… but to win this race, after 10 years, I forgot how thrilling it really is, because the disappointment of coming off of [turn] 4, leading and gettin crashed, it’s hard to put into words how I feel about NASCAR the sport and being able to participate in it.

“Now tying the all-time record for wins here in the 500, I think it’s going to sink in next week a little bit more, but yeah, I’m in awe of how hard it is to win this race. I’m just so happy for William and Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) and the organization. And to see Alex [Bowman] finish second, that was great!” Hendrick crowed.

Behind Byron and Bowman, Christopher Bell delivered for Joe Gibbs Racing in third with the No. 20 Toyota, followed by Corey LaJoie’s No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevy, Bubba Wallace in 23XI Racing’s No. 23 Toyota, A.J. Allmendinger in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevy, Nemechek’s Toyota, Legacy Motorsports’ Erik Jones in the iconic No. 43 Toyota, Noah Gragson for Stewart-Haas in the No. 10 Ford and Chase Briscoe, in Stewart-Haas’ No. 14 Ford.

With the postponement at Daytona, it’ll be a rush to get to Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday’s second race of the year, but the NASCAR Cup Series pros will be ready for action in just a couple of days.

About Anne Proffit 1245 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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