Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

William Byron aims to ‘right the ship,’ carries confidence into Indy return

Even at just 22, William Byron still has a pull toward the history and aura surrounding Indianapolis Motor Speedway. NASCAR’s annual 400-mile race at Indy is older than Byron is, but the appreciation is still keen.

“When you drive in that place, it’s just a different atmosphere,” Byron says, noting the stadium-style feel and the larger-than-life character of one of the world’s greatest sporting venues.

For the third-year driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 Chevrolet, carrying the car number that five-time Indy winner Jeff Gordon used as one of the Brickyard’s all-time best only adds to the magnitude.

“I think that any time you can run well with the 24 at Indianapolis, it’s a big deal,” said Byron, who will make his third Cup Series start there in Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 (4 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, IMS Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “For me, Indy has a special place and it’s especially so nice with the win I have there in Xfinity Series. I enjoy it and kind of show up there with some added confidence, just knowing it’s a race track I enjoy and that it’s a place where we can really do well.”

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Byron finished a run-of-the-mill 19th in his Indianapolis debut, but rose with a fourth-place finish in last year’s regular-season finale. And his aforementioned Xfinity victory at the 2.5-mile track in 2017 was part of a summer surge on his way to the series championship.

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Similar results would help steady what’s been something of an uneven campaign in a season full of stops and starts with the adjustment for COVID-19 protocols. Byron has netted three top-10 finishes in his last five starts, but a 15th-place spot in the Cup Series standings has been underwhelming for a driver who emerged as a trendy preseason pick to break out with multiple wins.

“I think we’ve kind of definitely underperformed from our expectations,” Byron said. “I think we expected to be better and had a number of opportunities to squash it in some instances just execution-wise and with some of the fast cars that we’ve had. We’ve had a lot of solid top-10 finishes recently, so we’ve had that to fall back on, which we didn’t have at the beginning of the year, but ultimately we’ve just got to right the ship and really find that little bit more to run in the top five and then top two or three in a race.”

That perch on the lower edge of the 16-driver playoff picture may not be cause for concern just yet. Sunday’s 400-miler will be the 16th Cup Series race this year, leaving a scheduled 10-race countdown to the playoffs’ cut line.

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Byron holds a 31-point edge over fellow youngster Erik Jones, who currently clings to the last berth in the provisional playoff picture. But he says any possible number-crunching or periodic mirror-checks to keep track of the standings haven’t weighed on him yet.

“I think whenever you’ve run really well and you have the speed to win, you don’t really look at points at all,” Byron says. “Where points show up is when you don’t run as well and you kind of look and say, did we have a good day or a bad day with points and where did the other guys around us finish. That really only comes into your mind if you don’t have the speed to compete on that day. I think that’s really how we all are focused, and I feel like when we do have the speed, we’re capable of going and competing for a win. We don’t really worry about points.”

Byron & Co. began the year with improved aero features that bolstered their Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 racers. Hendrick Motorsports reaped benefits, flexing performance gains that resulted in early wins for teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott, plus a series-best 11 stage victories among their four-driver roster.

In recent weeks, Ford and Toyota teams have made up some ground, with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick leading the way. It’s just part of the sport’s cyclical nature, Byron says, noting that teams and manufacturers can’t afford to be stagnant with rivals at their heels.

“I think this thing goes in waves, and we had the car at the beginning of the year that obviously came out very strong with all the opportunities to come out and compete for wins at the very beginning,” Byron said. “I think we had a couple of those where it would have been nice to have won ourselves. Now we expect to make that rebound and make those improvements that we need to do. If you don’t, then you just have to come back stronger and learn. That’s kind of the way this deal works.”