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February 20, 2024

Analysis: With Daytona 500 win, William Byron forging own path with No. 24

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — After stopping to congratulate his crew, there was Jeff Gordon making the long walk through the tri-oval grass to join his team in celebrating another Daytona 500 win. The four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion won the “Great American Race” three times as a stock-car phenom in his 20s, but this feeling hit a little differently.

The No. 24 Chevrolet was again heading to Victory Lane, but this time with another 20-something hotshot leading the charge.

William Byron held on for victory in Monday’s Daytona 500, scoring his first win in NASCAR’s most prestigious race. The triumph provided a meaningful kickoff to the 40th-anniversary season for Hendrick Motorsports. Thanks to Sunday’s rainout, the victory arrived Monday — 40 years to the day that Charlotte car-dealer mogul Rick Hendrick made his first venture into team ownership, with Geoff Bodine finishing a respectable eighth in the 1984 running of the 500.

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Gordon was pivotal to the organization’s success through many of those four decades, amassing 93 Cup Series wins — all with the No. 24 that he made famous. Now as vice chairman in Hendrick Motorsports’ executive wing, Gordon has oversight of a four-car operation with an impartial desire for all to succeed. Impartial, it should be noted, is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that sentence.

“I try not to be biased, but William is making it hard on me,” Gordon said with a laugh. But the 52-year-old former wunderkind says he’s also ready for Byron to write his own story with his former car number, creating his own identity as the current keeper of the No. 24.

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A Daytona 500 win represents a major step toward galvanizing that path.

“It is 2024, and the 24 is always going to be very, very special to me,” Gordon said, “but what I loved the most is seeing him make it his number and building that fan base not only — 24 fans have been around for a long time, but his own fans. A win like this, my gosh, this is going to elevate that up to the next level and bring a whole lot more new fans to the sport and for William. That’s what I get excited and look forward to.”

If last year marked a breakout season for Byron, this season’s start with a signature victory signals an extension of that. It took two-plus years in the Cup Series for Byron to break through as a race winner, then another two-plus years to reach the six-win bar he established in 2023.

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His career win total now goes to 11. His unread texts count — by the time he reached his post-race press conference — stood at 122. As for what his win column could look like after the 2024 campaign, the ceiling is a high one, especially with Byron entering the year aiming to curry the respect and stature he feels the team deserves — even as part of a team roster with two recent former champions in Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson who might overshadow him.

“Yeah, I use it all as fuel, so just keep it coming,” Byron said. “All the preseason predictions and everything. I think it just for me, I just try to stay quietly focused. I feel like for me, I do well having my own space and being able to work through the things with my race team. I have to kind of balance that kind of calm demeanor with working with my team and being vocal enough to do the things we need to do to get the car better and things like that.”

“I don’t know. I don’t read too much into it. I’m never going to be the most vocal guy. I just enjoy getting in the race car and putting the helmet on and going to work. That’s what I’ve always lived for.”

The experience provided a new perspective for Gordon from his front-office role. The last time Hendrick Motorsports won the Daytona 500, Gordon was in his next-to-last season of Cup Series competition as teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to victory in 2014.

Ten years later, this triumph gave him a special insight to the teamwork involved in making a powerhouse racing operation go.

“I might not have been driving the car tonight, but I felt like I made every lap with our guys,” Gordon said, “especially with the 24 and with William in those closing laps when he was out front. To me, when I found out that they had won, I honestly was about as excited as I was when I was driving.”

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The level of excitement was sky-high for the No. 24 team during the celebration in front of the main grandstand. Gordon noted the level of youthful enthusiasm, which rivaled the vibe of some of his earliest triumphs.

As Byron continues to forge his path with Gordon’s former number, he’s also inherited a legion of fans with loyalties connected to the No. 24. Those allegiances span both past and present.

“I just try to continue to come out of my shell and be myself around race fans,” Byron says. “It’s tough. I never grew up envisioning that I was going to drive the 24 car. It definitely takes a while to get comfortable with that, but it’s just special to have so many fans that followed Jeff all of the years of his career, and you meet a lot of cool people that have followed him for years. And ultimately us now.”