William Byron prevails in Daytona finale

With his NASCAR Cup Series Playoff hopes on the line, Hendrick Motorsports’ driver William Byron earned his first career victory Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 regular season finale.

The victory was an automatic berth into the playoffs for the 22-year old Byron – a hard-fought trophy in a typically full-contact, high-emotion contest on NASCAR’s famed Daytona high-banks to settle the playoff field.

The only two playoff positions still up for grabs on the night were filled by Byron and Matt DiBenedetto, who earned the 16th and final Playoff position with a 12th place effort – a mere six points better than seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson who nursed a badly-damaged car home to a 17th-place finish.

“We made it,” DiBenedetto said. “I don’t care how we did it. All my goal was, was to come in here and make it. 

“I wanted it so bad for this team,” he continued, with a nod to the longtime Wood Brothers Racing operation he drives for this year.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, just missed qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.  He was involved in a multi-car incident in the final laps of the race.  (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)

Johnson – who is retiring from full-time competition at the end of the season – was obviously disappointed in the outcome, but emboldened by the effort of his team. The 83-race NASCAR Cup Series winner had a tough path to earn a playoff berth. He missed a race due to a COVID-19 diagnosis and had points taken away from a runner-up effort earlier in the season due to a disqualification. He was in contention to move into his final playoffs opportunity until being caught up in an 11-car accident with only two laps left in regulation.

“First and foremost, congratulations to my teammate for getting his first Cup win like that,” Johnson said. “This setting and the drama that goes into it, that’s a big win for [crew chief] Chad Knaus and William Byron, really happy for those guys.

“I really feel like we had a way to transfer to win or point our way in the way it went the first two stages and things just got ugly in Turn 1. Unfortunate, but that’s plate racing.

“We had a really good car and last couple months we’ve been really getting our act together and running well. Really disappointed to not be in the Playoffs. That was the number one goal to start the year.”

Byron took the lead from this year’s Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin on an overtime restart with two laps to go and with cars spinning out behind him, ultimately was able to hold off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott by a blink-of-the-eye 0.119-second. 

William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, celebrates his 1st career victory Saturday (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)

Hamlin finished third, followed by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. Richard Petty Motorsports’ driver Bubba Wallace turned in a season-best fifth-place finish. Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Brendan Gaughan, Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-10.

Kyle Busch led 31 laps but with only eight laps remaining in what had been a largely incident-free race, Busch, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, was collected in the first of two mega-accidents. 10 cars suffered damage in the incident and a red flag flew for more than 10 minutes.

The race restarted with five laps remaining but another incident at the front of the field involved 11 cars – including Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet and Joey Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford which had won the race’s first two stages.

Byron was part of that close-quarter contact racing and the race leader when the caution came out. During the ensuing short red flag period, Byron’s team worried if his car had suffered damage in the melee –  if Byron should stay out for the restart instead of pitting. He stayed out and the gamble paid off with Byron’s first NASCAR Cup Series win and a berth in the playoffs.

“I’m just extremely blessed and this is incredible,” said Byron, who drives the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “It’s been a hard couple of years in the Cup Series and trying to get my first win and gel with this team. These guys did an awesome job today and got us in the Playoffs and it’s amazing.

“This is probably the hardest track to points-race,” said Byron who only had a four-point advantage over Johnson for the final playoff transfer position entering the race.

William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“We had a great Stage 2 and kind of got back in the pack and got shuffled when everyone went single file. I thought my hope were up there. And we were racing around the No. 21 (DiBenedetto) and the No. 48 (Johnson) in the final stage and I was like, ‘man, I’ve to really make something happen. Luckily, I was able to push the No. 43 (Wallace) and he and the No. 22 (Logano) made some contact and opened up a hole for me and I wasn’t going to lift.

“It was awesome.”

The 10-race NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin next Sunday with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Seven-race winner Kevin Harvick, the regular season champion, is the top seed and takes a 10-point advantage into the playoffs over six-race winner Denny Hamlin. With his win, Byron moved up to a ninth-place seeding. DiBenedetto starts his first ever playoffs seeded 16th.

Race Results

Fin Str No. Driver Team Laps Status Led
1 6 24 William Byron Liberty University Chevrolet 164 Running 24
2 27 9 Chase Elliott Hooters Chevrolet 164 Running 0
3 10 11 Denny Hamlin FedEx Express Toyota 164 Running 9
4 2 19 Martin Truex Jr. Bass Pro Shops Toyota 164 Running 14
5 21 43 Bubba Wallace World Wide Technology Chevrolet 164 Running 0
6 9 12 Ryan Blaney BodyArmor Ford 164 Running 1
7 8 88 Alex Bowman Axalta Chevrolet 164 Running 1
8 40 62 * Brendan Gaughan Beard Motorsports/South Point Chevrolet 164 Running 0
9 17 17 Chris Buescher Fifth Third Bank Ford 164 Running 0
10 4 2 Brad Keselowski PIRTEK Ford 164 Running 1
11 24 38 John Hunter Nemechek # Fire Alarm Services Ford 164 Running 0
12 15 21 Matt DiBenedetto Menards/Dutch Boy Ford 164 Running 0
13 23 95 Christopher Bell # Rheem/Johns Manville Toyota 164 Running 2
14 26 34 Michael McDowell CarParts.com Ford 164 Running 2
15 32 15 Brennan Poole # Remember Everyone Deployed Chevrolet 164 Running 0
16 36 77 Ross Chastain(i) Moose Fraternity Chevrolet 164 Running 0
17 7 48 Jimmie Johnson Ally Chevrolet 164 Running 0
18 5 10 Aric Almirola Smithfiled Hometown Original Ford 164 Running 1
19 14 14 Clint Bowyer Haas Automation Ford 164 Running 0
20 1 4 Kevin Harvick Mobil 1 Ford 164 Running 6
21 25 32 Corey LaJoie Trump 2020 Ford 163 Accident 0
22 29 13 Ty Dillon GEICO Chevrolet 163 Accident 0
23 34 0 Quin Houff # Good Greek Movers Chevrolet 162 Running 0
24 35 66 * Timmy Hill(i) RoofClaim.com Toyota 161 Running 0
25 12 3 Austin Dillon Dow VORASURF Chevrolet 161 Running 0
26 30 96 * Daniel Suarez CommScope Toyota 159 Accident 19
27 3 22 Joey Logano Shell Pennzoil Ford 158 Accident 36
28 19 42 Matt Kenseth Credit One Bank Chevrolet 158 Accident 0
29 18 8 Tyler Reddick # KCMG Chevrolet 158 Accident 1
30 16 41 Cole Custer # HaasTooling.com/Autodesk Ford 158 Accident 0
31 37 53 Joey Gase(i) Sparks Ford 158 Running 0
32 31 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Kroger Chevrolet 155 Accident 0
33 11 18 Kyle Busch Interstate Batteries Toyota 152 Accident 31
34 13 1 Kurt Busch Monster Energy Chevrolet 151 Accident 1
35 20 20 Erik Jones Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota 151 Accident 15
36 22 6 Ryan Newman Guaranteed Rate Ford 151 Accident 0
37 28 37 Ryan Preece Bush’s Beans Chevrolet 151 Accident 0
38 39 7 * Josh Bilicki(i) Ariens Chevrolet 151 Running 0
39 38 51 James Davison Jacob Construction Ford 139 Accident 0
40 33 27 JJ Yeley(i) America Strong Chevrolet 3 Engine 0