WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – After taking the lead early in stage two, William Byron never really looked back en route to the win at Watkins Glen International on Sunday afternoon.
PHOTOS: Capturing the scenes of the No. 24 team's victory celebration
Byron led 65 of the final 67 laps on the day to capture the victory in the No. 24 Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. In total, he led 66 laps in the race. The triumph is his fifth of the 2023 season, which leads the NASCAR Cup Series. In addition, the 25-year-old driver picked up his series-best eighth stage win of the season.
"It was awesome," Byron said of the race. "It was a great Valvoline Chevy. I was able to do what I needed to do to build a little bit of a gap. Thanks to this whole team. It's been a fun weekend. We've had a great car all weekend and just tried to execute a good race. Road courses haven't been our strength as a group, but we've been working really hard at it. I'm really thankful for the whole group. I feel like this sets up well for the playoffs."
RELATED: Every win for the No. 24 | See all of Byron's NASCAR Cup Series wins
Byron started second and finished the opening 20-lap stage. On lap 22, crew chief Rudy Fugle brought his driver down pit road – one lap later than the leader – and Byron was able to cycle out with the lead on lap 24. He held the point position until pitting on lap 55. After retaking the lead on lap 58, Byron held off Denny Hamlin on the lap 61 restart and couldn’t be caught from there.
"It was kind of like the old F1-style - stay out, get clean air, get a good lap in and we pitted there and got the lead," Byron said. "It was kind of ours from there. Just really proud of the team and it's really awesome to get a road-course win."
The win comes at Fugle’s home track on the Cup circuit as the crew chief hails from Livonia, New York.
"I really don’t know how to take it yet," Fugle said of winning at a track so close to home. "I’m sure it’ll settle in after a few weeks or after the year. Pretty cool. Grew up about 30, 40 miles from here. Came here a lot, but just in the area with my parents here. It’s pretty special."
Byron’s victory is his first on a road course and the ninth of his Cup Series career. Hendrick Motorsports has now won 11 times at Watkins Glen and has a five-race winning streak at the 2.45-mile road course. The only track where the team has a posted a longer winning streak was at Phoenix Raceway, with six victories in a row from 2007 to 2009. In addition to Byron, Jeff Gordon (four wins), Chase Elliott (two wins), Kyle Larson (two wins), Tim Richmond (one win) and Ricky Rudd (one win) have victories at the Finger Lakes region facility. The Rick Hendrick-owned team now has 27 wins on serpentine layouts.
"Seeing Hendrick (Motorsports) continue their dominance at this racetrack is certainly something that means a lot to all of us," Gordon, who is now the vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, said in a post-race press conference. "So many great memories being up here, and to see that continue, but it's always a little bit something special, a little bit unique when you look out there and you see the car number that you drove."
Alex Bowman finished 23rd in the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. Coming off a top-five finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Bowman struggled with a lack of lateral grip in his car, especially in the left rear. After getting to 11th, the 30-year-old driver had to pit under yellow before pit road opened due to low fuel. That pit road penalty sent him to the back of the field before finishing 23rd. This weekend, Bowman also ran in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race, where he finished ninth.
Larson started the race in fifth and finished the opening stage in sixth. The driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy spent much of the second stage in the top five and finished that 20-lap segment in fourth. Larson pitted from third on lap 54 for service but sped during his time on pit road. That penalty saw him restart at the rear of the field on lap 61. He drove up to 19th over the final green-flag run but contact with Austin Dillon in the final turn saw Larson spin out. The 31-year-old finished 26th and is fifth in the Cup Series regular season standings.
RELATED: Larson's Indianapolis 500 journey takes next step with car reveal
Elliott started 15th in the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 at the seven-turn track. He and crew chief Alan Gustafson used pit strategy to gain track position by pitting at the end of stage one. When the pit stop cycle was complete, Elliott found himself in seventh on lap 24. He maintained a top-10 position in stage two and finished seventh in that segment. While running in the top 10 on lap 56, Elliott ran out of fuel on track. With the No. 9 stopped, the race’s lone caution came out. After getting to pit road for service, the 2020 champion was a lap down. As the race ran green the rest of the way following the lap 61 restart, Elliott finished in 32nd. The No. 9 team remains the last team in the provisional playoffs for the owner's championship.
"He was stretching," Gordon said of the No. 9 team's strategy. He came in a little bit short the first stop and so they were trying to stretch it to get closer on the strategy of the others.
"You always want to pad yourself here just in case there's a lot of restarts at the end. The fuel just wasn't there. It was really unfortunate."
Both Bowman and Elliott enter the regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway in a must-win situation to make the playoffs. There is only one spot up for grabs in the 16-driver postseason. The race at Daytona will take place on Saturday, Aug. 26, at 7 p.m. ET on NBC, Peacock, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90).