LAS VEGAS – William Byron and the No. 24 team recognize that they’re flying a bit under the radar as they enter the playoffs for the very first time together this season.
And that’s just fine with them.
“It’s a little bit of an advantage to have that lack of pressure on our team,” the driver said. “Our goal was obviously to make the playoffs, and to accomplish that has been really good. And we don’t feel like we’re just sneaking into the playoffs or anything – we locked it in a couple of races ago. So, I feel good about that.”
On the heels of a rookie of the year campaign in 2018, Byron has improved in virtually every category this season, including notching three top-five finishes and four poles after earning zero of either in 2018.
In 2019, he has more than doubled his top-10s from 2018 and is just two laps away from tripling his laps led total from a year ago.
“It’s a big improvement from last year, for sure; but I think with the team we’ve had this year I kind of hoped and expected to be where we are,” Byron said. “The second year is great. I wish I could have had the first year back, I guess, and been in the playoffs last year, but I definitely appreciate it now, and being able to be a part of it.”
There’s one race weekend in particular that Byron credits with the team’s run to the playoffs – when the NASCAR Cup Series headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.
It began when he raced his way into the All-Star Race by winning Stage 1 of The Open as the No. 24 team took an “aggressive approach” to the weekend. He took home a top-10 finish in the All-Star Race, then the very next weekend he became the youngest pole-sitter in the history of the 600-mile race at Charlotte before earning another top-10 finish in that race.
“That was a big turning point,” the driver explained. “At least for me, I kind of felt like, ‘Hey, I’m here now. I can compete.’”
That led into a run dating back to the end of June at Chicagoland Speedway in which Byron has started from the pole once and collected three top-five finishes and five top-10s in the last 10 races. In fact, all of his Cup Series top-five finishes and five of his 13 career Cup top-10s have come in the 10 races leading into the 2019 playoffs.
“We’re building on it and gaining on it, for sure,” Byron said. “I think the next step is just how do we perform in the playoffs and how do we get to the next level of our progression as a program.”
Byron is the third-youngest driver in series history – at 21 years, 9 months and 17 days – to make his first playoff start. In the 2019 playoffs, he is the youngest driver competing in the 16-driver field, but he’s got a veteran crew chief atop the pit box on his side.
Chad Knaus is set to make his 16th trip to the playoffs – the only Cup Series crew chief to make an appearance in every season of the playoffs' existence. While it will be the veteran crew chief’s first time entering the 10-week stretch with Byron behind the wheel, Knaus is no stranger to playoff success, collecting 29 victories – the most of any crew chief by 20 wins.
Byron said he and his crew chief have had many discussions about how best to handle his first playoff run.
“We’re just going to go about doing our normal routine,” he said. “I feel like now we can focus more on executing the first three races and try to get through that round.”
The playoffs begin at 7 p.m. ET Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBCSN.