By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer
Though William Byron entered the elimination race at Martinsville Speedway 30 points to the good, it was a nailbiter even before the green flag flew Sunday.
“I was so nervous sleeping last night,” Byron said of Saturday night. “I had that feeling in my stomach… I just didn’t have that feel in the car that I wanted. I knew it’d be a battle.”
A battle it was. The Hendrick Motorsports driver felt nerves following a 16th-place qualifying effort on Saturday. Those nerves bled into Sunday’s 500-lapper, where the No. 24 was stuck in the mid-pack frenzy for the entirety of the event.
Meanwhile, playoff drivers Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin dominated the race, leading 301 of 500 laps and finishing 1-2 in both stages.
“It was hell in a bottle,” he said. “I’ve never been so mad at a racecar. I’ve never wanted to get out so much. I’ve never been so frustrated at the car. How loose I was, how tight I was in some spots. I just had no grip. It’s tough to do that.”
With red-hot emotions, the temperatures were also hot from inside the car.
“My face is bright red,” he said. “I just had this issue with both races here where I couldn’t get my head cool. With 50 or 60 to go, I just couldn’t — it was so blurry in the car and I just wanted to pull in. But you’re not going to do that.”
With the car making it nearly impossible to drive to the front, Byron and team were watching Hamlin, who contended for the win that would punch his ticket to the Championship 4.
Crew Chief Rudy Fugle could only keep his driver’s spirits high.
“It doesn’t get any more stressful than that,” Fugle said. “You can’t do nothing for these long runs. You’ve got to work on the car and it’s super hard to pass, even when you get the car better.
“We got the car better to pick up a few positions but we were not good enough to drive through the field. The No. 19 [Martin Truex Jr.] is a perfect example. He never passed us all day and he was good enough to run top three until he lost track position.”
With a 168-lap green-flag run to end the day, Byron clipped off a few positions to raise to 13th. And with Hamlin failing to score the win, Byron was into the Championship 4 for the first time in his sixth Cup Series season.
“It was a really hard-fought battle,” he said. “Just super thankful to my team. My crew chief Rudy just knew what buttons to push to keep me in the game. We’ve had so many tough times together. When he took over the [No.] 24 car, he believed in me and gave me all the tools to go out and have success. All the guys on the team believe in me, we did all we could and they deserve it.”
“It would have sucked to not make it. We dug in. A lot of guys raced with respect and I appreciate that. I feel like we do that and a lot of people took care of me. We really deserve it, we deserve to go to Phoenix.”
With a series-leading six wins, Byron now heads to Phoenix in search of his first title.
“This is my dream. I love to race cars. I love what I do,” he said. “It means a lot. I’m sure I’m gonna go home and think about it. I’m happy for Ryan [Blaney], they deserve it, they were really fast today.
“I’m going to be super happy on the drive home. I’m gonna kiss my girlfriend, hug my dog [laughs]. I’m just gonna go home and sleep a lot.”