FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — William Byron grew up a huge fan of Hendrick Motorsports, watching Jimmie Johnson win championships and knowing how much he wanted to drive for that organization one day.
The 25-year-old Byron is now a step closer in his sixth Cup season to having an opportunity to race for Rick Hendrick’s next title after getting the team owner a milestone victory in the second-round opener of the NASCAR playoffs.
Byron led only the last six laps Sunday at Texas, going in front by passing Bubba Wallace and Chase Briscoe right after the final restart, and advanced to the round of eight with his series-best sixth win of the season. It was the 300th for Hendrick, coming a little more than two years after passing Petty Enterprises’ longtime record of 268 wins for the most in Cup history.
“The 300 wasn’t a goal, 269 was a goal to beat Petty’s record,” Hendrick said. “I never thought we’d get there, so we started counting down until we got to break that record. Once we got to 269, then everybody started talking about 300.
“I’m not thinking about 350, I’ll tell you that. I’m going to enjoy 300 and see what happens,” he said. “I’d like to win another championship.”
With Byron already in the next round, Hendrick also has 201 champion Kyle Larson still in contention. Larson is currently eighth in the playoff standings with two races left before the next cut, though he was almost the one to get No. 300 — like he got the record 269th at Charlotte midway through his championship season.
Larson is a three-time winner this year, and he led 99 laps at Texas. He was in front with 20 laps to go when, after he and Wallace opted against stops for fresh tires during a caution period, they were side by side going into Turn 1 on the restart. Larson got loose on the inside but avoided contact with Wallace when the No. 5 Hendrick entry went up the track and slammed hard into the wall.
The race still ended with Hendrick in victory lane celebrating a milestone with Byron, along with the crews and drivers from his other three cars.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s really special,” Byron said about getting No. 300 for Hendrick with his 10th career win. “Growing up a Hendrick Motorsports fan, I watched win No. 200 on TV when Jimmie won that race (at Darlington in 2012). I always felt like obviously the gold standard was Hendrick Motorsports, so if I could ever drive for them, once I started having success in my own career, that was the goal.”
Hendrick has 14 Cup titles, led by the seven Johnson won and four by Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 car that Byron now drives. Terry Labonte won a title in 1996, a year after Gordon got the organization’s first one. Chase Elliott was the 2020 champion.
Twenty different drivers have won races for Hendrick, topped by Gordon’s 93 and Johnson’s 83. Elliott is third on that list with 18, just ahead of the 16 by Larson, now in his third season with the team. Geoff Bodine got the very first victory in 1984 at Martinsville.
The top five finishers at the 1 1/2-mile Texas track were all playoff contenders, with Ross Chastain second, ahead of Wallace, Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin. Retiring driver Kevin Harvick was sixth and playoff driver Brad Keselowski seventh.
“We’ve just been kind of steady Eddie through the first three or four races and we haven’t shown any flashes, but today I thought we had a good car if we could have just get to the front,” said Byron, who had a winning margin of 1.863 seconds. “At the end there we were really fast.”
There are two more races in the round of 12, at Talladega next weekend and then the Roval at Charlotte. Both can be unpredictable and concerning tracks for drivers still trying to advance.
“We don’t have to be as stressed about what happens,” said Rudy Fugle, Byron’s crew chief. “We can just go try to get more playoff points, and that’s a big goal.”
Byron maintained first place in the playoff standings, with Denny Hamlin, Chris Buescher, Christopher Bell, Martin Truex Jr., Ross Chastain, Brad Keselowski and Larson rounding out the top eight. Bubba Wallace moved up three spots to ninth, still one below the cutoff line before the round of eight. Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch were behind him.
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