William Byron looking to make history in qualifying at Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - SEPTEMBER 07: William Byron, driver of the #24 Liberty University Chevrolet, drives during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on September 07, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

William Byron was a visible mixture of raw excitement and tempered enthusiasm Saturday morning before the opening round of practice for Sunday’s NASCAR Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For the first time in his two-year Cup career, Byron has secured a position in NASCAR’s Playoffs. And while he smiled acknowledging a bit of pressure was lifted for Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (2 p.m. ET. on NBC, IMS Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the 21-year-old Charlotte native is fine with high NASCAR Playoff expectations. He’s used to success.

And this weekend Byron’s success could make NASCAR history as the series prepares for the 10-race Playoff portion of the season beginning next week at Las Vegas. Should Byron win the Busch Pole position Sunday morning (10:30 a.m. on NBCSN, IMS Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) for the Brickyard 400, he would be the first driver in history to win the pole position at the sport’s four biggest races – the Daytona 500, Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600, Darlington’s Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400 – all in the same season.

Of course, for this former NASCAR Xfinity Series champion it’s where he finishes that will matter the most. And Byron is optimistic about his chances at Indy, where he has won before – the 2017 Xfinity Series race en route to the season title. And of course, his predecessor in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Jeff Gordon, won a record five Brickyard 400 races.

“I think it means a lot just for the sole reason that it’s the Brickyard 400 and this place means a lot to win here,’’ Byron said. “I don’t know if it would mean as much if it was just a typical race and we were already in the Playoffs, but for it being the race that it is, it would mean a lot [to win].

“Plus, it would be such a big race to win right before you start the Playoffs. I think [a win] would carry a lot of momentum into the first round.’’

Momentum is certainly something Byron has benefitted from this year. And he credits a lot of that to his new crew chief Chad Knaus, who previously led his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson to seven Cup titles.

In Byron’s 2018 rookie Monster Energy Series season, he had four top-10s and no top-fives. He’s had four top-10s in just the last two months under Knaus’s guidance, including a career best runner-up finish in the summer Daytona race. In all, Byron has eight top-10s and two top-fives – career highs – with 11 races still remaining in the season.

And it all translates into a hefty dose of Playoff confidence at just the right time. Byron is currently ranked 13th in the points standings and has already clinched his postseason berth.

“I’m excited,’’ Byron said of his championship position. “I don’t really know what to do or what to expect or anything. But, obviously having been in the series last year and having seen the way that the races played out, it’s just all about getting down to business and pretty much doing the same thing that you’ve been doing to get here and just try to eliminate mistakes.

“I think that is the biggest thing. I’m going to try to definitely have really clean races and that starts this weekend for us and just trying to build the momentum for it and make sure we execute a good race.”

Byron has previous top-10 finishes at three of the Playoff venues – an eighth-place finish at the Dover, Del. one-miler earlier this season, ninth at Phoenix last year and a top 10 at Texas both last year (10th) and this year (sixth).

“I think anywhere we’ve been and then go a second time, like Vegas and Richmond come to mind,’’ are places Byron says he feels especially optimistic about. “That second or third round, Texas would be a good track for us. I think Texas, and Kansas would be good, too, because we’ve been there already this year.

“Anywhere that Chad (Knaus) and I go for the second time is going to pay off.’’

Greg Engle