A good crew chief knows how to play to a driver’s strengths. So it came to pass that when Ryan “Rudy” Fugle and driver William Byron had one of their first meetings to discuss their pairing on Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 24 team next season, the crew chief made one of his first calls of his NASCAR Cup Series tenure — where to break bread … or in this case, breaded poultry.
“Rudy knows I’m a pretty picky eater,” Byron said, noting their meeting at a TGI Fridays not far from the HMS campus. “So he chose that one because they have chicken tenders and fries, so it was perfect.”
With his first winning strategy call in hand, Fugle will become Byron’s third Cup Series crew chief in four seasons in 2021, building on the foundation established by predecessors Chad Knaus and Darian Grubb — both of whom now preside over in-house managerial roles in Hendrick’s competition department. The combination marks a reunion for the two, who first came together nearly five years ago for Byron’s introduction to the national NASCAR stage.
So far, their reconnection — on teamwork, their aspirations and menu choices — has been a near-seamless one.
“I think the influence has already been noticeable,” Byron says. “I mean, we’ve met two or three times over the last couple weeks, and the influence has already been there and we’ve kind of picked up where we left off with communication and stuff. Yeah, we do have to be out on the race track to kind of see the fruits of that, but you can plan accordingly and have a really good plan, and that’s a good start.”
Fugle was atop the pit box for Byron’s first full national-series season, a title-caliber NASCAR Camping World Truck Series campaign for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. The two assembled a series-best seven wins together, and only an engine failure in the penultimate race kept Byron from reaching the championship round.
A year later, both Byron and Fugle were crowned champions in new arrangements. Byron won the 2017 Xfinity Series title after making the shift to JR Motorsports and Chevrolet in advance of his move to the Cup Series with Hendrick Motorsports. Fugle remained at KBM, and his pairing with up-and-comer Christopher Bell resulted in his second Truck title as a crew chief in three years.
Even as Byron graduated to the Cup Series, he kept Fugle in mind, bringing up his name for a potential engineering position at Hendrick in previous years. When mentor Jeff Gordon mentioned Fugle as Knaus’ successor late last summer, Byron embraced the idea. Hendrick announced Fugle’s new role Oct. 26.
It’s a new series and a new era for Fugle, whose work with Byron at KBM was focused on shaping a fresh-faced 18-year-old talent into a proven winner. Fugle’s first impressions, he recalled, was that of a well-prepared, inquisitive teenager who became sharper and more aggressive as his comfort grew behind the wheel. Flashing forward to the current day, Fugle will work with a still fresh-faced, but more experienced 23-year-old with three years vested in his Cup career.
His approach, Fugle says, is something he expects to bridge from those different points in time.
“Our year of working together, I think one of the biggest things is just always learning how to push somebody, how to push their buttons the right way, how to motivate, encourage and read their emotions,” Fugle says. “That’s one thing about him is we can be pretty real with each other. I’m a pretty straightforward guy and William takes that really well. We have a really good communication style and that’s made it easy to be friends with him.”
Byron has qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs the last two years, and the 2020 season yielded his first major-league win — a clutch victory in the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. But he’s returning to a reimagined Hendrick Motorsports lineup, one that will be missing seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, one that adds a new teammate in Kyle Larson and shifts Alex Bowman to the No. 48, and one that has the sport’s newest champ in Chase Elliott.
That last aspect is something that resonates with Byron, who is intent to match Elliott as the standard-bearer for both Hendrick and the series. That starts, Byron says, with improving on zero-win and one-win seasons to being a threat for scratching the win column multiple times in 2021.
“It’s definitely hit us. I think seeing Chase go out there and win the championship like that was definitely a sign that obviously we’re capable,” Byron said. “Yeah, the bar has been set, for sure. Things have really evolved – I think the first year when I was here in 2018, how many growing pains there were for me, but also the race team to kind of find our footing with really three new drivers and one veteran guy. So now, it’s four new guys. I feel like three of us have been here for a while now and really established kind of our trends, our feelings inside the team and what we want in our race cars.
“I think the bar has definitely been set now and it’s about just going out there and trying to achieve that.”