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‘Let it live’ mantra: Byron-Fugle pairing nets quick dividends for No. 24 team

Ryan “Rudy” Fugle reflects upon the last nine years of his racing career in a positive light, calling his long-held crew chief role at Kyle Busch Motorsports “an amazing job.” He says now that leaving the Camping World Truck Series and placing his career into transition mode would require the right scenario, an opportunity that checked the boxes for organization, owner, driver and team partners.

Fugle found that position when he signed with Hendrick Motorsports last October to work this season with driver William Byron, whom he once mentored at KBM. But there was another drawing card that enticed the 37-year-old crew chief.

“… I just wanted to prove that I could — to everyone, to myself, to everybody, that yeah, I could do it at this level,” said Fugle, in his first year atop the pit box in the NASCAR Cup Series. “So we want to do it a whole lot more.”

That call to rinse and repeat was part of Fugle’s ecstatic refrain over the team radio after recording his first Cup win with Rick Hendrick’s famed No. 24, watching Byron dominate the latter portions of Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Fugle praised the work of his driver and his crew on the cool-down lap, but he also signaled that more was in the offing. “That’s how we race!” Fugle exclaimed. “… Get used to winning, boys.”

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Winning isn’t a new phenomenon for the Byron-Fugle combination, which produced a stellar seven-win campaign for KBM during their lone season together in 2016. Their reunion this year carried the not-so-veiled notion that their existing chemistry could be reformulated for Cup Series success.

Who knew the breaking-in period would be completed in such short order, especially with Fugle trying to learn his way around a new series with new cars, and a new organization with new colleagues just three races in. Credit goes at least in part to their seemingly effortless communication, both through Byron’s reliable feedback and Fugle’s decisions based on that input.

John K Harrelson
John K. Harrelson photo

“What helped us about the previous relationship was the fact that we’ve worked together before and I knew him,” Fugle says, “I knew how to push his buttons, I knew how to motivate him, and that helped buy me some time to learn these Cup cars that I don’t know yet, so I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Some of that encouragement in the closing laps was both familiar and comforting for the 23-year-old driver. With Byron nursing a lead that topped five seconds before eventual runner-up Tyler Reddick mounted a final charge, Fugle repeated “let it live” in his radio dispatches down the stretch, telling him not to press as he managed both lap-down traffic and the late-race challenge.

“That’s all it’s meaning, just not to push too hard,” Fugle said. “A lot of it comes from having such young drivers like I’ve been used to; they get the lead and they drive harder than they should. I don’t think William needed that, but it felt good to say it, so we kept going with it.”

Shades of 2016 all over again. “It’s helpful,” Byron said with a laugh.

Sunday’s win not only provided a measure of validation for the crew chief move, which dovetailed with predecessor Chad Knaus’ elevation to vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, but it also gave the No. 24 group a virtual lock-in to the 16-driver postseason field and some early relief.

Byron’s first Cup Series win came in the clutch last year, a breakthrough victory in the regular-season finale at Daytona that sealed a long-teetering playoff berth. Win No. 2 pulled him from potential playoff limbo.

“I think I’ve spent kind of a lot of my Cup Series career kind of on the bubble of the playoffs and now I don’t have to worry about that,” Byron said. “It’s crazy; I’m going to take all that stuff in, and just got a great team, got an awesome crew chief. It’s going to be a fun year.”

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Fugle indicated he has no intent of relaxing with the Homestead victory laurels in hand. With an early trend this year of unique Cup Series winners beating longer pre-race odds, Fugle says he’s striving for firmer footing in the remote possibility that the postseason field becomes crowded with one-race winners. He’s also making sure the No. 24 team has title-caliber cred once the 10-race playoffs arrive in the fall.

The pieces may already be in place. The rest is a matter of getting used to winning and letting it live.

“First of all, with the weird winners we’ve had so far — and I don’t think we’re weird, but it kind of is a little bit weird — you have to be careful that you’re not going to get too many one-wins, so you want to keep attacking for that reason,” Fugle says. “Two is we want to learn how to be a winning race team. In the playoffs to win a championship, you have to win a lot of races, so we have to learn how to do that now and get used to that to be able to contend for a championship.

“We’re not a championship team yet, but over the next 20-some weeks we’re going to become one, so that’s what we’re going to do.”