DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – William Byron started Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona Int’l Speedway as one of three drivers battling for a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.
He ended it as the newest NASCAR Cup Series race winner, which earned him a guaranteed spot in the playoffs.
“I’m just extremely blessed and this is incredible,” Byron said after climbing from his race car Saturday night. “It’s been a hard couple of years in the Cup Series and trying to get my first win and gel with this team. These guys did an awesome job today and got us in the playoffs and it’s amazing.
“I can’t describe winning a race in NASCAR.”
Byron, Matt DiBenedetto and Jimmie Johnson entered Saturday’s race with a mathematical shot at making the playoffs. Byron, by virtue of his victory, locked into the playoffs while DiBenedetto bested Johnson by six points to take the final playoff spot.
It all came down to the final 13 laps of the race, which saw Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin lead the field back to the green flag for a restart following an incident involving James Davison. Byron, who was running in the top-five at the time of the caution, pitted for tires during the caution period to try and improve the handling on his Chevrolet.
The action at the front quickly intensified, with Kyle and Kurt Busch exchanging the lead at the front of the field. With nine laps left Kyle Busch was back in the lead when Tyler Reddick got a big run entering turns three and four.
Reddick attempted to pull up in front of Kyle Busch to take the lead in the middle of the corner, but the two made contact. Kyle Busch slowed dramatically, leading to a big pileup collected 10 cars.
Following a brief red flag period for cleanup, racing resumed with five laps left with Hamlin leading Reddick, Chris Buescher, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott. DiBenedetto, Byron and Johnson lined up 10th, 11th and 12th for the restart.
The intensity level continued to ramp up, with drivers beating and banging throughout the field as they jockeyed for position. With two laps to go contact between Hamlin, Logano and Bubba Wallace at the front of the field led to a second massive crash, which officially involved 11 cars. Among those involved was Johnson, whose No. 48 Chevrolet sustained major damage.
In the midst of the crash, Byron had managed to muscle his way between Wallace and Logano to make his way to second behind Hamlin for the upcoming overtime restart.
“The 22 (Logano) made a late block and they bounced off each other. I had already pushed the 43 (Wallace) into that hole,” Byron said. “So I was committed. At that point daylight opened up between the two cars. After they bounced off of each other they kind of separated and I had enough of a run to stick it in there and complete it (the pass) practically.
“I was going to go for that because I needed the points and I needed to try to finish the race in first, second or third.”
During the restart Byron got a big push from Clint Bowyer on the bottom to pull clear into the lead, with rookie Christopher Bell behind him. At the white flag Martin Truex Jr. moved to the top and drove by Bell and began challenging him for the race lead.
Down the backstretch Truex and Byron raced side-by-side for the lead, but entering turn three a big push from Chase Elliott allowed Byron to pull clear of the field. Byron wasn’t challenged again as he crossed the finish line to become the 195th race winner in the history of the NASCAR Cup Series.
“There was a point in that race where I didn’t think things were going to work out in our favor to make the playoffs and really have an opportunity next week,” Byron admitted. “This was kind of one of those do or die situations. I kind of crossed that fork in the road tonight and we were able to be aggressive and make it happen.
“Probably just the final 10 laps of the race I was on offense and trying to win the race and take whatever run I could. Luckily I was able to make the moves I needed to.”
Elliott crossed the line in second, followed by Hamlin, Truex and Wallace.
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