William Byron entered Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway – the final regular season race of the NASCAR Cup Series season – four points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate and 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the 16th and final playoff spot. Byron didn’t leave anything to chance as he claimed victory in overtime to notch his first career win, guaranteeing him the coveted playoff berth. It was the first career win for Byron, who is now in his third full-time season with Hendrick Motorsports. He is just the second driver to win a premier series race in the iconic No. 24 car, made famous by Jeff Gordon, who won 93 races from 1993-2015.
“Oh, yeah! I had confidence in (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and the guys that we could get four tires and make the most of it,” Byron said following the race. “So, I’m just extremely blessed, and this is incredible. 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.”
For most of the race, all eyes were on Byron, Matt DiBenedetto and Johnson, who were jockeying to secure the final two playoff spots after Clint Bowyer clinched his berth following the conclusion of Stage 1.
The race was basically wreck-free for the first 152 of the scheduled 160-lap race, before a pair of late incidents completely changed its nature. The first occurred coming out of Turn 4 on lap 153 when Tyler Reddick passed Kyle Busch for the lead and went to block him. Having not completely making the pass, the two touched and set off a 10-car wreck, which also brought out the red flag for more than ten minutes. Among the cars forced to exit the race was Busch, the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion, who appeared as though he could be heading for his first win of the season.
The second occurred going into Turn 1 on lap 158 and resulted in an 11-car incident, one of which was Johnson, eliminating him from playoff contention in what is his final full-time year as a Cup Series driver. It also paved the way for DiBenedetto, who finished the race in 12th spot, clinched the final playoff slot.
Byron was squarely in the middle of both wrecks, but adeptly avoided contact in each of them.
“This is probably the hardest track to points-race,” Byron said. “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 hopes were up there. And we were racing around the No. 21 (Matt DiBenedetto) and the No. 48 (Johnson) in the final stage and I was like man, I’ve got to really make something happen. Luckily, I was able to push the No. 43 (Bubba Wallace) and he and the No. 22 (Joey Logano) made some contact and opened up a hole for me, and I wasn’t going to lift. It was awesome.”
DiBenedetto knew that earning a postseason berth, especially battling a 7-time champion, wouldn’t come easy.
“It was too eventful. I’m mentally worn out,” said DiBenedetto, who is in his first year driving for Wood Brothers. “I’m gonna sleep great tonight, but there was so much going on there at the end. In the race, I hedged toward being on the bottom because, man, just when you’re in the bottom and the top it’s nearly a sure thing when you get that you get crashed. I’m glad we were able to take it home because I wasn’t happy with the finish, but I came in here saying all that mattered was to make these playoffs.”
Johnson entered the night four points out of the final playoff spot, and finished six points behind DiBenedetto. He knew he had the car to earn his way into the Playoffs, but things just did not work in his favor.
“Yeah, we had a really good car,” Johnson said. “The last couple of months, we’ve been really getting our act together and running well. Definitely disappointed to not be in the Playoffs – that was the number one goal to start the year. But when I look back at the disqualification at Charlotte and then missing the Brickyard 400 due to my COVID-19 positive test and only miss it by six points – we did all that we could this year. I’m so thankful for Hendrick Motorsports and the career that I’ve had there, the relationship with Ally and their continued support for this race team. Cliff Daniels and these guys on my team – they pour their guts out for me. There’s 10 races left, 10 trophies to go chase and we’ll have to focus our efforts there.”
Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott finished second, while Denny Hamlin was third, his fourth top-3 finish in the last five races. Martin Truex Jr. (4th) and Bubba Wallace (5th) rounded out the top-5. Completing the top-10 were Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Brendan Gaughan (his scheduled final Daytona race), Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski. John Hunter Nemechek (11th) was the highest finishing rookie.
Logano won both Stage 1 and 2 of the race, giving him six stage wins on the year. The driver of the No. 22 car for Team Penske also led a race-high 36 laps of the 164-lap race and finished 27th after being involved in the final wreck.
There were 34 leads changes among 16 drivers and six cautions for 21 laps. It was the ninth time in the last 13 years dating back to 2008 that the Coke Zero Sugar 400 has been extended into overtime.
2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Field: Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Cole Custer, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto
Tickets for the 63rd Annual DAYTONA 500, the biggest and most prestigious event on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule, are on sale now. The 2021 edition of “The Great American Race,” which could see the event’s first three-time consecutive winner in Denny Hamlin, will again be held on Presidents’ Day Weekend on Sunday, Feb. 14. Tickets start at $99.
In addition to the “The Great American Race,” fans may purchase tickets and multi-day packages for a fresh look of events as part of DAYTONA Speedweeks Presented By AdventHealth. It will include a packed six days of racing. Instead of the Busch Clash At DAYTONA and qualifying for the DAYTONA 500 the Sunday before the DAYTONA 500, the Busch Clash will be held in primetime on Tuesday, Feb. 9 on the DAYTONA Road Course, and qualifying for the DAYTONA 500 will be Wednesday, Feb. 10.
Tickets for the 63rd annual DAYTONA 500, the 43rd annual Busch Clash and all other speedway events can be purchased online at www.daytona500.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP. Fans can stay connected with Daytona International Speedway on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and by downloading Daytona International Speedway’s mobile app, for the latest Speedway news throughout the season.