William Byron was desperate to get out of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet late Sunday at the Martinsville racetrack, needing to escape the heat, which was so bad it damaged his vision. But with a chance to compete for the NASCAR Cup Series championship, Byron gutted it and finished 13th — what he called his worst race of the season. However, it was enough to propel him into the championship race by eight points.
“It means a lot,” Byron said. “I’m sure I’ll go home and really think about it. I’m happy for Ryan, he deserved (the win). They were very fast today. I’m so happy for my team, I can’t say it enough.
“With 50, 60 left, it was so blurry inside the car and I just wanted to stop, but you won’t. I would fail or do something first. So, I’m just really proud of the team. They gave me an opportunity. This is my dream. I love racing cars, I didn’t grow up with it, but I love what I do and they believe in me.”
In addition to the unusually high temperature for a fall race at Martinsville (it was in the 80s), Byron struggled to keep his head cool when the helmet fan wasn’t working. A problem that has come up more than once for him at Martinsville, and Byron couldn’t get his helmet off fast enough when he got out of his car and had to sit down.
“It was a really tough fight,” Byron said. “I’m just super thankful for my team. My crew chief, Rudy, just knew which buttons to push to keep me in the game. We had so many tough times together and when he took over the 24 car he believed in me and gave me all the tools I needed to go out and be successful. I’m just very grateful to him and the whole team – all the guys in the team believe in me and we did our best and they deserved it.
“We had a great season. It would have been a shame not to make it, so we dug in.”
Byron did not score any stage points on Sunday after qualifying 16th. And the car didn’t do well once the race got underway, Byron struggling in traffic saying he had nothing to race and running outside the top 15 for most of the afternoon. Where he finished was the highest Byron had run under green flag conditions.
“It was something (expletive) in a bottle,” Byron said. “I’ve never been so angry in a race car, I’ve never wanted to go out so much, I’ve never been so frustrated with the car and how loose I was, how tight I was in places. I just had no traction. It’s hard to do that. But many people competed with me respectfully; I appreciate that. I feel like we do that and vice versa and a lot of people have taken care of me. I’m just really grateful for that.
“We just really deserve it. We deserve to go to Phoenix. It’s good to see it pay off.”
At the start of the weekend Byron had a 30 point lead at the line. But when qualifying doesn’t go well, it changes the outlook for race day and gives Byron a bad feeling.
“It was pretty awful,” Byron said of the weekend. “I was optimistic that we had the car in practice, we were doing well at medium levels. The car was loose, tight in the center, not what you really want, but I was just hoping the track would come to us or something, and when we qualified like we did, I was like, “Oh, no. ‘ I was so nervous while I was sleeping last night. I don’t think I said a word to (girlfriend) Erin on the way here in the car. Just so nervous. I had this feeling in my stomach.
“I don’t mind all the work we put in, but I didn’t have the feeling in the car that I wanted. I knew it was going to be a battle. But when you go into those fights, I think you underestimate how hard it’s really going to be, and when you’re running 21st or whatever, it’s not fun out there. It was really hard.”
In its fifth postseason appearance, the second time it has reached the Round of 16, Byron has managed to stay in the title race. Byron leads the streak with six wins and 20 top-10 finishes and enters the postseason as the No. 1 seed.
“I saw a lot of guys and they were pretty disappointed and when I saw him and he’s in great shape, I could tell it was really tough for him today,” Jeff Gordon said of Byron. “All those long green flag runs, but other than that the car just didn’t handle well, so he had to fight with the wheel as well as the heat. And the stress that goes along with trying to get into Phoenix. So I’m really proud.
“I’m proud of what they’ve done all year that they can enjoy what this week — get that behind them — but enjoy what this week has to offer because whether you win the championship or no, it’s just a great experience to be a part of and I feel like they’ve really worked hard to win it this year. I honestly think they have a great shot at it too.”