AVONDALE, Ariz. – William Byron used a ninth-place finish during Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at ISM Raceway to clinch the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Fittingly, Byron passed his lone challenger for the award – Darrell Wallace Jr. – on the final lap of the race at the one-mile desert oval. The 20-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver heads into the final race of the season 23rd in the overall point standings, with an insurmountable 116-point lead over Wallace.

Byron took the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to four top-10 finishes in the first 35 races this year, including a season-best result of sixth at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway in late July.

While his performances weren’t necessarily what he would have hoped for out of his first season at the Cup Series level, the Charlotte, N.C., young gun was pleased by his solid showing on Sunday.

“We haven’t had very good runs, to be honest, the whole year,” Byron noted. “This run, though, we just went a completely different direction with what we were doing and it seemed to pay off. We had a solid weekend, other than qualifying. Got some damage there, but we were able to come back and finish ninth, so that’s decent going into Homestead next week.”

Byron circled his progress as a driver as something he was personally proud of in his rookie season.

“Just how we’ve grown or how I’ve grown is something that sticks out to me,” said Byron of his year as a whole. “There’s been a lot of things to learn, so just how I’ve improved those things or how people have helped me improve those things has meant a lot. I’m looking forward to next year and what we have there.

“I think probably some of the decent runs that we’ve had … the road courses went pretty well for us, and then some of the short track races went well. So I probably look at that stuff and am proud of that.”

Byron has won Rookie of the Year honors at every level he’s raced at in NASCAR: the K&N Pro Series East in 2015, the Camping World Truck Series in 2016, the Xfinity Series last year and now the Cup Series this season.

He also won the championship as a rookie in both K&N East and Xfinity.

“Those are things that are really special to me, but you can’t hang your hat on those,” Byron said. “Next year will be a different deal for us.”

As he looks ahead into next year, Byron hopes to be a playoff contender much like his three teammates – Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman – were this season.

He knows that goal will mean stepping his driving and team up to a new level.

“Maturity is going to be big for me, and focusing on what’s inside our team,” Byron pointed out. “There are certainly things that we can do better as a group, and if we can do that and come in prepared, I believe we’ll have a chance to make some big gains in 2019.

“Right now, though, we have one race left and I’m looking forward to that. I’m proud to be a part of the Cup Series and hope to stay here for a long time to come.”