Mixed emotions in William Byron’s first Cup win

“The playoffs.”

That’s the first thing that popped into 22-year-old William Byron‘s mind Saturday night In the moments after winning his first career Cup Series race.

Not that he’d earned the win at Daytona International Speedway or that he was now only the second Cup driver to win a race in the No. 24 made famous by Jeff Gordon.

No, after surviving multiple wrecks in the final laps, the third-year driver was just relieved to be part of the 16-driver playoff field at the end of the regular-season finale.

Byron began the night only four points above the cutline. He ended it inside the top 16 with Matt DiBenedetto while teammate Jimmie Johnson’s bid for an eighth title in his last full-time season was denied.

Byron’s mind quickly went to the crew members on his No. 24 team.

“Just how excited I knew that my team was, how excited (spotter) Tab (Boyd) was on the radio, how excited (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) was, how excited I was,” Byron said.

Entering his 98 career Cup start, Byron admitted he had thought about how long it had been since he’d won a race. His last trip to Victory Lane in a points race was Nov. 11, 2017 when he won a Xfinity race at Phoenix Raceway.

“That feeling of coming off (Turn) 4, it’s just a shot of adrenaline right into your arm, it really is,” Byron said. “It’s just an incredible feeling. I can’t describe winning a race in NASCAR. It’s been a while.”

Byron said winning his Daytona 500 qualifying race in February “was kind of half of that, I’d say, three‑quarters of that feeling. I just want that feeling again. This is awesome, man.”

Relief wasn’t reserved for Byron.

Knaus, in his second year working with Byron, had plenty to share.

With the victory, the seven-time champion crew chief accomplished multiple career goals.

A former member of the No. 24 teams of Gordon and Ray Evernham in the 90s, Knaus had finally taken the No. 24 back to Victory Lane.

“It was a long time coming,” Knaus said. “I really wanted to get to Victory Lane with this 24 car again. To be able to do it with the legacy that Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham started with this car at Hendrick Motorsports, to get it back to Victory Lane, follow suit with what Chase (Elliott) was able to do with the 24 car, to put William’s name up there, it’s a lot of pressure. I feel really happy about it and definitely a lot of relief.”

The other goal was also rooted in personal history: his 17 years working with Jimmie Johnson on the No. 48.

“The one thing to be selfish from my standpoint is I wanted to get to Victory Lane with a car … without Jimmie Johnson’s (name) on top of the door. Nothing against Jimmie or any of that, but just to do it, to see if I could accomplish it.

“We’ve come close, had some really solid runs with the 24 car. Not as many this year as we would have liked to have had. To do it really means a lot, to be able to bring this team into the playoffs again.”

On the flip side, Knaus felt “awful” the win came at the expense of Johnson, who failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.

“Let’s be quite honest, right? Jimmie shouldn’t be in this position,” Knaus said. “If it hadn’t been for COVID, him missing a race, he should have been solid in the playoffs. That hurts. I hate it for Jimmie. He’s one of my best friends. He was the first guy that came by pit road and looked up at me, revved up the engine, gave me a thumbs up. He means the world to me. He’s a great man and brother of mine.

“It hurts me, but it is what we do, we compete. We’ve got to go do what we need to do.”

Knaus mentioned relief when asked to compare Saturday night’s win to what he experienced in 2002 when he and Johnson earned their first win together at Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s a different emotion. It’s a different time,” Knaus said. “Obviously, in 2002 it was just different. It was so raw and so pure, just a different time. William is experiencing those emotions right now obviously. I think it’s fantastic. We’ve got a handful of guys on the team that have never won a Cup race before. They’re going through those same emotions.

“For me it’s quite honestly a little bit more of a relief than maybe the elation of victory.”

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