‘You Better Get Used to It,’ or How William Byron Is Ready to Break Out

“You better get used to it, boys.”

That was the message from crew chief Rudy Fugle to William Byron as he crossed the finish line immediately after winning the Dixie Vodka 400 on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

In his fourth season at the highest level, Byron appears to have found a comfort zone, and is poised to make good on the Next Big Thing label that was attached to him after he was signed by Hendrick Motorsports in 2016.

At the time, the 23-year-old was viewed as something of a prodigy and for good reason, too.

Byron had won in everything he had driven, and usually within short order, from Legends to Super Late Models and throughout the NASCAR ladder system. He captured the 2015 K&N Pro Series East championship, won seven times in Truck Series competition in 2016, and claimed the 2017 Xfinity Series championship to earn the inevitable promotion to the Cup Series.

NASCAR’s Next Big Thing had arrived but was subsequently humbled.

Having spent his formative years as an eSport sensation, Byron had no simulation to prepare him for the jump to the highest level of the discipline. That’s to say nothing of the pressure associated with driving the iconic No. 24 made famous by Jeff Gordon.

Byron struggled to break into the top-20 most weeks in his first season while paired with veteran crew chief Darian Grubb, and it wasn’t much better the next two years while working alongside the legendary Chad Knaus.

Perhaps prematurely and unfairly, a different label began to associate itself with Byron: Bust.

“You can’t really get too down on yourself because the opportunity just has to come,” Byron said of processing the first real slump of his decade spent in racing. “I’ve got good people around me that kind of made sure that I stayed focused even if I didn’t want to hear it.

“My dad is kind of like that, and I feel like he’s pretty objective, and Max (Papis), and being able to talk to Rudy (Fugle) off and on throughout the years has been great, too.”

Byron went 0-98 before breaking through last September at Daytona International Speedway.

When Knaus took a promotion within Hendrick Motorsports, and Byron needed a new crew chief, Fugle was the one consistent option that kept coming up.

Together, they won seven races at Kyle Busch Motorsports and should have won the Truck Series championship if not for a blown engine in the penultimate race at Phoenix Raceway.

Byron kept in contact with Fugle over the years, viewing him as both a friend and mentor, and it was just a matter of convincing him to take the job.

Fugle is one of the most decorated Truck Series crew chiefs in recent memory with 28 wins in 168 starts, including championships with Erik Jones and Christopher Bell.

“It’s been well-documented,” Fugle said. “I had a great job. The past nine years at Kyle Busch Motorsports I had an amazing job, so it had to be the right situation for sure to move on, and William being ready, and Hendrick Motorsports is an amazing organization. It definitely was the right opportunity.”

Byron credits Knaus for lighting a fire under him at times over the past two years, pushing him to be simultaneously aggressive and cerebral, but he also conceded that he needed a level of communication he had only found with Fugle over the past five years.

When it works, it works.

“I feel like for us we just communicate throughout the race,” Byron said. “He knows how to push my buttons and get me motivated and get the answers out of me that he needs to make the car better.”

There were buttons that Knaus pushed, the same ones that worked for Jimmie Johnson with the legendary No. 48 team over the past two decades, but it wasn’t necessarily the blueprint to get the most out of Byron.

“Chad brought me from running 20th in the Cup Series to making the playoffs two years in a row, and I think that was huge,” Byron said. “It gave me a chance to really learn under the fire and kind of put myself in situations where I could learn from some veteran drivers.

“I had a couple run-ins with Kyle (Busch) at one time, Brad (Keselowski) and none of that stuff would have happened if I wasn’t up there and fast.”

But now Byron is fast, experienced, and with all the pieces around him that he believes is needed to make a deep run towards the championship race this November.

For the first time in his career, Byron can already start thinking about the playoffs, rather than barely advancing in the final weeks of the regular season.

“I do think in a lot of ways this was more indicative I think of the season we can have,” Byron said. “We did our jobs tonight, and it just feels really awesome.

“It’s going to be fun this year. I think I’ve spent kind of 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. It’s crazy; I’m going to take all that stuff in, and just got a great team, got an awesome crew chief. It’s going to be a fun year.”

For all the talk of the 0-98 start, that number is in line with the 0-100 start to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott’s career, and now he’s the reigning champion at 25-years-old.

Byron is 2-111 now, and once again, the Next Big Thing is starting to embrace the expectations.

“You don’t want to be the one-win wonder guy,” Byron said. “So, I think for me, once you get in that two (win) category, you start building towards the next ones.

“What clicked for me, after the first win, was just the hunger to taste the same feeling, like how exciting it is to win and what that means to the guys around you and your family and all the people that kind of put you here.

“Once you get that taste in your mouth, you can’t really get rid of it. You want that. I think you race a little differently.”

William Byron has been unleashed.

You better get used to it, boys.

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