William Byron wasn’t looking for validation, but more like confirmation and he found it Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Byron made tremendous progress last year in his sophomore season in the NASCAR Cup Series, which was also his first working with crew chief Chad Knaus.
While he advanced to the playoffs, Byron ended the 2019 season still without a series victory.
Byron remains without a points-paying win but made his first trip to Victory Lane in a Cup Series event Thursday night as he won his Daytona 500 qualifying race while fending off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
It doesn’t count as a Cup series “win” but it did come with 10 points toward his Daytona 500 weekend total and a fourth-place starting position for the race on Sunday.
“It’s great momentum for us with this win. I feel like honestly it just gives confidence to me to make those bold moves late in the race. I feel like you have to put yourself in those positions to really know what it’s going to feel like,” Byron said.
“Chad and I talked a lot about that going down here for this week, just racing every lap of the week. We almost raced all the laps last weekend. This was a really critical race for me to learn and kind of perfect it a little bit.
“Still a long way to go. When you look at guys like Denny (Hamlin) or Joey (Logano) out there, I think they’re very aggressive at these races. That’s who you’re going to have to beat.”
The Byron and Knaus combination came as an unexpected one last season, in part because Knaus had spent the vast majority of his Cup career working with Johnson.
With Byron being only 20 years old when he joined Cup fulltime with HMS, many thought it would be like starting over for Knaus. But so far, so good.
“Jimmie and I were coming up trying to prove ourselves at the same time. We both knew that was our opportunity. If we blew it, we probably weren’t going to be in racing too much longer, at least doing those respective roles,” Knaus said.
“To be working here with William, watching him mature, watching him just get the experience and everything that he’s got going on, the confidence to go out there and race with those guys, it’s been a pleasure, to be honest with you.
“With Jimmie, we were just digging and clawing and scratching for everything we could. This has been a lot of fun. It’s been a very calculated path. Hopefully, we can continue to go down this road.”
Byron ended the 2019 season having collected his first five top-five finishes of his Cup career, including career-best second-place runs at the July Daytona race and the fall race at Martinsville, Va.
He ended up 11th in the series standings and began to become much more comfortable with his place at one of NASCAR’s most successful organizations.
“There’s really no other relationship out there besides you and your guys and your crew chief. I think that’s where the confidence for me comes from,” Byron said. “What (Knaus) said about it being a journey, we just don’t stop here.
“This is kind of a result that we can put up on the board now in the shop and say, ‘Okay, now we actually have something to show for what we think we’ve been able to do lately.’
“We’ve built something over the last year working with Chad. He’s allowed me to grow up a lot.”
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