Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – The 40th anniversary of the race that put NASCAR on the map is all but lost on William Byron.
When Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison wrecked in the closing laps of the 1979 Daytona 500—and tried to settle their differences with fisticuffs afterward—Byron wasn’t around.
In fact, when Jimmie Johnson won his first career pole at Daytona in 2002, Byron was more than nine months away from his fifth birthday. As he grew older, he paid attention to Johnson’s success with crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I mean, I’m so young, I wasn’t around for a lot of that,” Byron said of the 1979 race. “I guess, like, growing up watching, honestly, Jimmie and Chad win races at the 500, then watching Kevin Harvick win in 2007—those are the races that stick in my mind.
“I’m trying to make memories for myself. It’s cool to see some of that stuff come around full circle.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick closed the circle with a personnel shuffle that broke up the Johnson/Knaus pairing after 17 years and brought the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion crew chief to Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet.
That’s something Byron couldn’t have imagined when, as a driver for the Hendrick Motorsports-affiliated JR Motorsports NASCAR Xfinity Series team, he met Knaus for the first time.
“No, definitely not, definitely not,” Byron said on Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway. “That’s a crazy thought to think a couple of years ago, that I could have him as a crew chief.
“But a huge honor, and something that I’m looking forward to.”
Byron already has something he can look back on, too. On Sunday, with Knaus on his pit box, the 21-year-old driver won his first career Busch Pole, securing the top starting spot for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Hendrick Motorsports drivers had the four fastest laps in the final round, with Alex Bowman, Johnson and Chase Elliott trailing Byron.
Johnson and Knaus won the Daytona 500 pole in their first race together. Byron and Knaus did the same, a testament to how quickly the young driver and veteran crew chief have adapted to each other.
“He’s exciting to work with,” Byron said. “He’s super into anything racing-related, whether it’s car-related or driver-related. He’s helped me a lot with a lot of things I didn’t really expect him to really care about that much.
“He cares about me as a person. That builds a level of trust and respect between us. Still a lot… still very fresh and very new of a relationship. We’ve worked a lot in the offseason to make sure it’s the way it should be.”
Byron can look back on his first pole, but he’d prefer not to look much further, opting to put a rocky 2018 rookie season in the Cup series behind him. With an average finish of 22.1 and four top 10s in 36 points races, Byron finished the year 23rd in the standings.
With a new crew chief and a new competition package this season, he can discard much of last year without regret.
“Honestly, I don’t think about it that much right now,” Byron said. “I kind of blocked out most of that last year, other than the things I learned about myself mentally. But honestly, there’s not really a lot that’s similar to last year with us, besides the (car) number and the way the car looks.
“Don’t really think about it.”
With three days between his qualifying laps and his Gander RV Duel At Daytona 150-mile qualifying race on Thursday, Byron is eager to start racing.
“I’m ready to get in a car,” Byron said. “I’m tired of talking about it. I just want to go race. Can’t wait to get into the car.”
The nature of superspeedway racing tends to minimize the advantage a pole winner might have. It’s not particularly surprising that no Daytona polesitter has won the 500 since Dale Jarrett took the checkered flag 19 years ago. Byron hopes to break that trend.
“That would be awesome,” Byron allowed. “Hopefully, if it’s in the plan, I guess meant to be, it will be. We’ll see what happens.”