CONCORD, N.C. -- For the first time since 2014, all four Hendrick Motorsports teams are in the Round of 12 of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The feat is especially impressive given that No. 24 driver William Byron and No. 48 driver Alex Bowman were below the bubble before last Saturday’s cutoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Byron, who was 18 points out entering the event, had top-10 finishes in stages one and two before crossing the finish line third, boosting his playoff ranking from 15th to eighth. Bowman ran in the top 15 all evening before some heavy adjustments from No. 48 crew chief Greg Ives at the end of stage two and beginning of stage three, which gave Bowman a comfortable handling on his car to finish fifth.
“It just shows a lot of fight in the No. 24 team and ourselves to overcome some of the comments,” Ives said. “The past six weeks haven’t gone exactly the way we’ve wanted it but we approach every week as a new week and we try to overcome that. It just shows the fight and the speed in our cars to be able to overcome this challenge. It’s definitely impressive what the 24 was able to do. They had to score stage points to transfer on. …
“Going on to the Round of 12 is huge for Alex, myself and Ally. The first round is a tough round with all 750 tracks. Historically, they’re not in the wheelhouse of Hendrick Motorsports but we were able to get wins, have some good runs there and move on.”
Rudy Fugle, who is in his first season as a Cup Series crew chief, was thrilled that he, Byron and the No. 24 crew were able to transfer on. It marks the second time 23-year-old Byron has moved on to the Round of 12 and first time since 2019. Fugle and Byron have had an impressive first season together in the highest level of stock car racing, posting one win, 10 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s, including 11 top-10 results in a row.
Fugle said the final 50 laps at Bristol were so intense that it rivaled his championship moments from when he was in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. He added that’s what made the race so much fun, especially after incidences at Darlington Raceway and Richmond Raceway relegated Byron to finish 34th and 19th, respectively.
“It’s a relief to make it through that round after the troubles we had,” Fugle said. “We don’t take that for granted. In fact, we had to fight for everything to get to the second round – it’s big for us. From the driver to the pit crew to the team itself. We’re not going to take anything for granted and we’re going to lay it all on the line at the race. I think we can go far.”
Alan Gustafson, who is in his 17th season as a crew chief with Hendrick Motorsports, saw driver Chase Elliott officially lock himself in to the Round of 12 midway through the Bristol race from stage points. While Gustafson said he and the No. 9 team are trying to take on the playoffs one race at a time, he added having all four teams make up the final 12 drivers could only benefit the organization.
“I think everyone is super focused on running as best as we can and winning and transferring,” Gustafson said. “What the No. 24 and No. 48 teams did was great, so to have more Hendrick Chevys in there and more opportunities to advance cars is what we’re going for, so it’s good.”
Crew chief Cliff Daniels didn’t have to stress about No. 5 driver Kyle Larson making it into the next round after he was locked in via points from the Richmond race. His position was further solidfied when he took the checkered flag at Bristol for his sixth win of the year. However, Daniels said the intensity was still high at the half-mile track in regard to his teammates and that having all four teams locked in to the next round shows how working together has only strengthened the organization.
“I think it’s a huge testament to the leadership and all the opportunities that Mr. H (team owner Rick Hendrick) has given us and the motivation to continue to work together,” Daniels explained. “As cliché as it is, all the fundamentals of having good teams and good teamwork still exist – they’re always going to exist. Keeping it basic, keeping it simple, making sure people know how to work together, overcoming obstacles together, and winning together is really critical.”
The four teams will try to continue their success in the Round of 12 with this weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The event will begin Sunday at 7 p.m. ET and air on NBCSN.