Dropping the hammer and refusing to lift out of the throttle at the right timing and in a last-stretch effort to keep his championship hopes alive, William Byron raced his way into the 2020 NASCAR Cup Playoffs after forcing his way into the lead with two laps remaining and holding off the field in overtime to score his first Cup career win in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway under the lights on August 29. The victory was Byron’s first in his 98th career start in NASCAR’s premier series as he became the 11th Cup competitor to clinch a spot into the Playoffs by winning a regular-season race.
The starting lineup was based on three statistical categories: current owner points standings, the results from a previous Cup race and the fastest lap from a previous Cup race. With that, Kevin Harvick, coming off his victory in the second of a Dover International Speedway doubleheader last weekend, started on pole position and was joined on the front row with Martin Truex Jr. Austin Dillon dropped to the rear of the field due to failing pre-race technical inspection twice along with Clint Bowyer due to unapproved adjustments.
When the green flag waved and the race started, the field battled two by two for a full circuit until Truex was able to move in front of Harvick and lead the first lap. The following lap, Harvick gained a push from Brad Keselowski in Turn 2 and was able to come back around to lead the second lap by a nose over Truex’s No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry.
Approaching the third lap, William Byron made a move on the outside lane with drafting help from teammate Alex Bowman and started to challenge Harvick for the lead through the tri-oval and in Turn 1 with sparks flying beneath Byron’s No. 24 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE.
On the fifth lap, Harvick was still leading, but the outside lane led by Byron gained a huge run entering Turns 1 and 2. Though the inside lane led by Harvick gained a run through Turns 3 and 4, Byron was able to lead a lap for himself on the sixth lap.
Through the early stages of the race and the opening 10 laps, the competitors running on the outside lane would gain an advantage through Turns 1 and 2, but the competitors on the inside lane would gain an advantage through Turns 3, 4 and the tri-oval, which kept the field dead even against one another while racing two to three wide approaching and past the start/finish line.
By Lap 10, Byron, racing on the outside lane, was back in the lead as he held a narrow advantage over teammate Bowman, rookie Cole Custer, Erik Jones and rookie Tyler Reddick all on the outside lane while Harvick was in sixth place and the first car running on the inside lane. In addition, J.J. Yeley was slowly limping his car back to pit road. Three laps later, Harvick dropped below the yellow line in Turn 2 and surrendered track position towards the front to tuck behind Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Guaranteed Rate Ford Mustang in 24th place to have debris removed from the grille of his No. 4 Mobil 1 Ford Mustang.
Back at the front on Lap 14, Byron and the No. 24 car were still leading ahead of teammate Bowman, Custer, Jones, Reddick, Kyle Busch and rookie John Hunter Nemechek all on the outside lane with Keselowski leading a pack of cars on the inside lane.
For the next six laps, Byron was able to remain ahead of a bevy of competitors in a single-file line through the competition caution flew on Lap 20. By then, Jones and Reddick were in fourth and fifth behind Custer while names like Daniel Suarez, Nemechek, rookie Christopher and Michael McDowell were in the top 10. Jimmie Johnson was in 11th ahead of Denny Hamlin, Keselowski, Truex and Ryan Blaney while Matt Kenseth, Bubba Wallace, Chase Elliott and Joey Logano were in 16th, 18th, 19th and 20th. Matt DiBenedetto was in 21st ahead of Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher while teammates Aric Almirola and Harvick were in 26th and 28th. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was in 30th behind teammate Ryan Preece while Clint Bowyer was in 33rd in between Brendan Gaughan and Austin Dillon.
Under the competition caution, nearly the entire field led by Byron pitted while names like Almirola, Truex, Harvick, Stenhouse and Ross Chastain, all of whom were racing towards the rear of the field, remained on track. Shortly after, the remaining cars that remained on track pitted prior to the restart.
Nearing the 25-lap mark, the race restarted under green with teammates Byron and Bowman on the front row. At the start, Byron moved in front of teammate Bowman on the inside lane to retain the lead. With Reddick running in third place behind the two leading Hendrick Motorsports competitors, Jones, who was scored in fourth place, was the first car to form a pack on the inside lane.
Not long after, Johnson moved up to fourth place while the inside lane led by Jones followed by teammate Kyle Busch and including Keselowski and Logano. After a handful attempts in trying to move in front of the Chevrolet brigade on the outside lane led by Byron, Jones emerged with the lead followed by his teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin on Lap 29.
A lap later and with the pack continuing to battle intensely within the draft, Jones was still leading teammate Kyle Busch and Bell followed by McDowell, Logano and Kenseth. By then, Byron was back in seventh place.
On Lap 34, Byron returned to the lead followed by teammate Bowman, Reddick and Logano while Jones and Kyle Busch fell back to fifth and seventh. Two laps later, Logano emerged with the lead as the field continued to battle dead even in a pack for the top spot.
By Lap 40, Logano was still leading over teammate Blaney and his No. 12 Body Armor Ford Mustang followed by Jones, Kyle Busch, Bell and Hamlin. In addition, Byron was in 10th behind DiBenedetto and ahead of Reddick and Johnson, who earlier made a move on the inside lane in Turn 3 but lost his momentum when no one opted to go with him. Way behind the pack and trailing by approximately nine seconds, Bowyer was in 34th ahead of teammates Almirola and Harvick.
With approximately five laps remaining in the first stage, a pack of cars on the inside lane led by Reddick and his No. 8 KC Motorgroup Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE started to charge towards the front on the inside lane as he was in fifth place while pursuing for more on the track.
At the start of the final lap of the first stage, Jones attempted to make a move on Logano’s No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Mustang for the lead, but Logano blocked his momentum and retained his advantage through Turns 1 and 2. By then, the competitors running towards the front started to battle intensely for many positions as possible with Reddick, Johnson and Byron starting to charge on the inside lane. In Turn 3, Reddick gained a run and tried to side-draft Logano for the lead. Logano, nonetheless, was able to have enough horsepower on the outside lane and drafting help from Jones through Turn 4 to win the first stage on Lap 50 and for his fifth stage victory of the season. Jones settled in second in front of Reddick, Blaney and Johnson while Bell, Byron, McDowell, Hamlin and Kyle Busch were scored in the top 10.
In terms of the battle for the final three spots to the Playoffs, Bowyer was able to clinch a spot for this year’s postseason, though he finished 33rd in the first stage. With Bowyer’s accomplishment, all four Stewart-Haas competitors have made the Playoffs for the second time in the last three seasons. In addition, with Bowyer securing a Playoff spot, that left two spots vacant. Thus far, DiBenedetto was inside the top-16 cutline by three points and Byron was ahead by two with teammate Johnson trailing by two. The remaining competitors led by Jones and Reddick were placed in a “must-win” situation to make the Playoffs.
Under the stage break, the majority of the field led by Logano pitted while some led by Keselowski remained on track. Prior to the start of the second stage, however, Keselowski pitted along with Harvick, Logano, Almirola, Newman, Hamlin, Chastain, DiBenedetto, Buescher and Custer to top off their respective cars with fuel. Following the pit stops, however, Hamlin was penalized and sent to the rear of the field due to not entering pit road in a single-file line.
The second stage started on Lap 55 with Bell and Jones at the front of the pack. At the start, Jones gained a push from Johnson on the outside lane to move into the lead. With Jones leading and in a “must-win” situation to make the Playoffs, Johnson settled in second place followed by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch and Kenseth. Bowman and his No. 88 AXALTA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE were in fifth ahead of teammate Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon while Bell and Kyle Busch were back in eighth and ninth just ahead of Wallace.
By Lap 60, Jones and his No. 20 Auto-Owners Insurance Toyota Camry were still leading over Johnson and his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. Kurt Busch and Kenseth were still in third and fourth followed by Bowman, Elliott, Austin Dillon, Bell, Kyle Busch and Wallace (all of whom were part of a bevy of competitors running in a single-file lane on the outside lane). In addition, names like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., rookie Brennan Poole, Nemechek and DiBenedetto were running in the top 15.
A few laps later, Wallace dropped out of the lead pack due to power issues on his No. 43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, an issue he was able to diagnose and fix while racing at the back of the pack. Shortly after, on Lap 65, a number of Chevrolet competitors including Byron, Johnson, Elliott, Bowman, Reddick, Austin Dillon, Kenseth and Kurt Busch pitted for fuel under green as part of a strategic call to complete the remainder of the second stage on fuel. Another lap later, the next wave of competitors including Jones, Bell, Poole and rookie Quin Houff pitted for fuel.
Back on the track, Kyle Busch and his No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry assumed the lead followed by Stenhouse, Nemechek, DiBenedetto and Logano. Then, on Lap 72, Suarez, who has finished no higher than 18th place all season long, assumed the lead followed by Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Wallace, Hamlin and Kyle Busch as a bevy of cars running in a single-file lane started to approach the lead group.
Eight laps later and at the halfway mark on Lap 80, Suarez and his No. 96 CommScope Toyota Camry from Gaunt Brothers Racing were still leading over Ty Dillon, Wallace and Kyle Busch. With Hamlin in fifth, names like Stenhouse, Nemechek, DiBenedetto and LaJoie were running in the top 10. Logano was in 10th ahead of teammate Blaney, Newman was in 13th ahead of McDowell, Harvick was in 18th ahead of teammates Bowyer and Almirola, Keselowski was in 21st, Johnson was in 24th ahead of Kurt Busch and Elliott, Jones was in 28th and Byron was in 31st ahead of Reddick and Bell.
With 12 laps remaining in the second stage, names like Ty Dillon, Wallace, LaJoie and Gaughan pitted for fuel while Suarez continued to lead over ex-teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin. Three laps later and with the laps in the second stage winding down, Logano gained a huge run on the outside lane followed by teammate Blaney, Truex and a bevy of cars through Turns 2 and 3 to reassume the lead over Suarez.
With five laps remaining in the second stage, the Chevrolet pack led by Johnson caught back up to the lead pack as Johnson started to make his move towards the front. Approaching two laps remaining, Kyle Busch made a green flag pit stop for fuel.
At the front, Logano was still ahead followed by teammate Blaney with Truex leading the outside lane and pushing for more. At the start of the final lap of the second stage, Johnson, who was in fourth, attempted to make a move beneath Bowyer for more, but Bowyer blocked and was nearly turned in the process entering Turn 1.
Despite the intensity that was occurring behind him, Logano was able to hold off the field to win the second stage on Lap 100 and for his sixth stage victory of the season. Truex settled in second place followed by Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Johnson while Keselowski, DiBenedetto, Stenhouse, Blaney and Bell settled in the top 10.
In terms of the Playoff picture following the second stage, DiBenedetto was still ahead of the top-16 cutline by five points and Johnson ahead by four with Byron now trailing by four points as a result of Byron failing to gain stage points in the second stage while Johnson and DiBenedetto did.
Under the stage break, the leaders pitted for fuel and Logano retained the lead following a stellar four-tire pit stop. Prior to the restart, Harvick and Hamlin were among a number of competitors who made a pit stop for final adjustments and to top off their respective cars with fuel.
With 55 laps remaining, the final stage commenced under green with Logano and Truex leading the field. In Turn 1, Truex received a push from Johnson and was just able to slide in front of Logano to move into the lead. Bowyer was in third place followed by the Busch brothers and Johnson. Behind, DiBenedetto was battling Kenseth for seventh place.
Five laps later and with 50 laps remaining, Truex was still the leader ahead of Logano and a pack of cars running two to three wide. By then, the top-24 competitors were separated by less than a second.
Two laps later, Logano and Bowyer gained a drafting run on the outside of Truex through Turns 2 and 3 as Logano moved back to the lead. Truex, however, was able to reassume the advantage the following lap followed by teammate Kyle Busch, Johnson, Elliott and Kurt Busch while Logano dropped back to sixth.
With 41 laps remaining and the battle for the top spot within the lead pack continuing to intensify and with two- to three-wide racing ongoing, Kyle Busch moved into the lead while Johnson fell out of the draft and was clinging within the top-15 running order. Another lap later, Johnson was scored in 13th while Byron and DiBenedetto were scored in fifth and 13th while Elliott and Kurt Busch were running in second and third behind Kyle Busch. By then, Johnson was scored outside of the cutline in the standings.
Another lap later, things got tight for the lead pack running three wide as the field had to avoid Chastain, who was being lapped and was running as close to the outside wall in Turn 3. In addition, entering Turn 4, Blaney wiggled following contact with Jones, but he managed to straighten his car without spinning it in the middle of the pack.
With 35 laps remaining, the Chevrolet competitors led by Elliott and including Kurt Busch, Byron, Stenhouse, Bowman, Wallace, Austin Dillon, Reddick, Johnson and Kenseth made a pit stop under green for fuel. Another lap later, the Toyota competitors led by Kyle Busch and including Hamlin, Jones, Truex, Bell and Suarez pitted. Poole and Chastain also pitted with the Toyota competitors.
With 30 laps remaining, 13 Ford competitors led by Logano and followed by DiBenedetto, McDowell, Buescher and Nemechek were at the front of the pack. Shortly after, the Ford competitors led by Logano and including Buescher, Nemechek, Newman, Keselowski, Bowyer, McDowell, Blaney, Almirola, Harvick, LaJoie and Custer pitted for fuel.
Back on track, Kyle Busch assumed the lead followed by teammate Hamlin, Byron, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and a number of competitors running in a single-file line with less than 30 laps remaining. With the laps continuing to wind down, the competition heating up towards the front and with 20 laps remaining, Kyle Busch was still leading ahead of teammate Hamlin, Byron, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon and Logano. Behind, Johnson was in 20th and scored outside of the top-16 cutline behind Byron and DiBenedetto, who was in 17th. In addition, Stenhouse, who made a handful of attempts to grab the lead on the inside lane, was back in 12th.
With 18 laps remaining, the caution flew when James Davison spun in Turn 3. Under caution, some like Byron, Elliott, Johnson, Bowman, Blaney, Almirola, Harvick, Ty Dillon, Buescher, Newman and Suarez pitted while the rest led by Kyle Busch remained on track.
The racing under green resumed with 13 laps remaining and with teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin on the front row. At the start, Kyle Busch moved in front of Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry to retain the lead. Three laps later, with the competition at the front heating up and with 10 laps remaining, Kyle Busch was still leading ahead of Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Bell, McDowell, Buescher and a multitude of cars.
A lap later, Kurt Busch and his No. 1 Monster Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE gained a run underneath brother Kyle to lead a lap, but Kyle reassumed the lead past the tri-oval. Behind, Reddick started to gain a huge run on the outside lane. In Turns 2 and 3, Reddick made a move beneath Kyle Busch for the lead.
In Turn 3, Reddick moved up the track and tried to squeeze and slide in front of Busch’s No. 18 Toyota. While trying to slide in front of Busch’s car, however, they touched and made contact with the outside wall. In addition, a chain reaction accident erupted that collected Jones, Kurt Busch, Truex, Austin Dillon, Stenhouse, Ryan Preece, McDowell and Newman. In the midst of the wreck, DiBenedetto along with teammates Johnson and Byron made it through with no damage to their respective cars. Following the carnage, Hamlin emerged with the lead over Reddick and the race was red-flagged for 10 minutes.
When the red flag was lifted and the race resumed under green with five laps remaining, Hamlin and Reddick battled for the lead dead even through Turn 1 while Reddick gained a push from Buescher and his No. 17 Fifth Third Bank Ford Mustang to move into the lead in Turn 2. The following lap, Logano drafted Hamlin to the lead and blocked a run from Bowyer while Reddick fell back to fourth.
In Turn 1, the following lap, Wallace started to form a third line on the outside lane and started to draft Logano to the front. With two laps remaining, Logano crossed over Hamlin at the tri-oval to move back into the lead while Wallace started to mount a challenge on the outside lane.
Entering Turn 1, however, Hamlin made contact with Logano and he bumped into Wallace, though all three kept their respective cars pointing straight. In addition, Byron stuck his nose in between Wallace, Logano and Hamlin in a four-wide battle for the lead as more contact was made amongst the leaders. With sparks flying underneath his car, Logano was turned off the front nose of DiBenedetto and made hard contact against the outside wall before being hit by Custer. In addition, another multi-car accident erupted that collected Reddick, Kenseth, Bell, Bowman, Suarez and Nemechek. Also involved was Johnson, who was hit by Kenseth across the outside wall, spun and sustained heavy damage to his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet. Following the accident, where Byron, Wallace and DiBenedetto managed to escape the carnage, the race was red-flagged for more than five minutes.
When the second red flag period was lifted and the race restarted under green in overtime, Hamlin and Byron were on the front row ahead of Bowyer and DiBenedetto. Way behind the leaders, Johnson continued on the lead lap following repairs to his car.
At the front, Byron received a push from Bowyer on the inside lane to take the lead. In Turn 2, however, Bell and his No. 95 Rheem Toyota Camry gained a run to Byron’s rear bumper. When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Byron was still ahead. Behind, Truex moved up to second after passing Bell and started to challenge Byron for the lead on the outside lane. In Turn 1, Bowyer and his No. 14 Haas Automation Ford Mustang slipped following contact with Hamlin and he made contact with the outside wall. Behind him, Harvick, who had made contact with Buescher a lap earlier in Turn 2, also got into the wall amid a shower of sparks after cutting a tire.
At the front and with no caution flying, Truex and Byron continued to battle dead even for the lead and the win. Right behind them through Turn 2, LaJoie spun and made contact with the wall after being bumped by Bell while Almirola and Ty Dillon also wrecked. With still no caution flying and with Bell making contact with the wall, Byron fought back on the inside lane entering Turn 3 and received a push from teammate Elliott and his No. 9 Hooters Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE to retain the lead while Truex lost his momentum after receiving no help from Hamlin.
Entering Turn 4 and with the checkered flag flying, Byron was able to hold off Elliott and a pack of cars to streak across the finish line in first place and grab a win and a spot in the Playoffs.
With the victory, Byron recorded the 260th NASCAR Cup career win for Hendrick Motorsports and the first win for the No. 24 car since November 2015 at Martinsville Speedway, which was last made by NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon. In addition, Byron and Gordon are the only competitors to record a Cup win while driving the No. 24 car. The Charlotte native also became the 195th competitor to win a Cup race, the second first-time winner of this season and the 34th competitor to record a win across NASCAR’s three major division series (Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series). In addition, crew chief Chad Knaus recorded his first Cup win since June 2017 at Dover International Speedway and he extended his Playoff appearance as a title contender to 17 consecutive seasons.
Ironically, this marked the third consecutive season where the second Cup race at Daytona’s oval-shaped circuit produced a first-time winner (Erik Jones in 2018 and Justin Haley in 2019).
“This is incredible, man,” Byron said on NBC at the tri-oval and with fans present at the facility. “I’m just extremely blessed. It’s been a hard couple of year in the Cup Series and trying to get my first win, try to gel with this team and these guys have done an awesome job today and got us in the Playoffs. It’s amazing, man. [Daytona is] Probably the hardest track to points race. We didn’t have a great Stage 2, kind of got back in the pack, got shuffled when everyone went single file. [I] Thought my hopes were up there. We were racing around [DiBenedetto] and [Johnson] in the final stage. I was like, ‘Man, I got to really make something happen.’ Luckily, I was able to push [Wallace], [Logano] and him made some contact and opened up a hole for me. I wasn’t gonna lift, so it’s awesome. Thanks to Liberty University, Chevrolet. Thanks to God. It’s amazing.”
Elliott finished in second place nearly two weeks after he won on Daytona’s road course layout. Teammates Hamlin and Truex finished third and fourth while Wallace made a late rally to finish in fifth place for his third top-five career finish in the Cup Series.
Blaney finished in sixth place while Bowman, Gaughan, Buescher and Keselowski rounded out the top 10.
DiBenedetto finished 12th and secured one of two final spots to the Playoffs while Johnson finished 17th and failed to make the postseason in his final full-time season of racing.
Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Cole Custer, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto will make up the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field.
Drivers that include Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman, John Hunter Nemechek, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Preece, Daniel Suarez, Brennan Poole and Quin Houff missed the Playoffs and will not contend for this year’s championship battle.
There were 35 lead changes for 16 different leaders. The race featured six cautions for 21 laps.
1. William Byron, 24 laps led
2. Chase Elliott
3. Denny Hamlin, nine laps led
4. Martin Truex Jr., 14 laps led
5. Bubba Wallace
6. Ryan Blaney, one lap led
7. Alex Bowman, one lap led
8. Brendan Gaughan
9. Chris Buescher
10. Brad Keselowski, one lap led
11. John Hunter Nemechek
12. Matt DiBenedetto
13. Christopher Bell, two laps led
14. Michael McDowell, two laps led
15. Brennan Poole
16. Ross Chastain
17. Jimmie Johnson
18. Aric Almirola, one lap led
19. Clint Bowyer
20. Kevin Harvick, six laps led
21. Corey LaJoie – OUT, Accident
22. Ty Dillon – OUT, Accident
23. Quin Houff, two laps down
24. Timmy Hill, three laps down
25. Austin Dillon, three laps down
26. Daniel Suarez – OUT, Accident, 19 laps led
27. Joey Logano – OUT, Accident, 36 laps led, Stage 1 & 2 winner
28. Matt Kenseth – OUT, Accident
29. Tyler Reddick – OUT, Accident, one lap led
30. Cole Custer – OUT, Accident
31. Joey Gase, six laps down
32. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – OUT, Accident
33. Kyle Busch – OUT, Accident, 31 laps led
34. Kurt Busch – OUT, Accident, one lap led
35. Erik Jones – OUT, Accident, 15 laps led
36. Ryan Newman – OUT, Accident
37. Ryan Preece – OUT, Accident
38. Josh Bilicki, 13 laps down
39. James Davison – OUT, Accident
40. J.J. Yeley – OUT, Engine
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will commence on September 6 at Darlington Raceway for the Cook Out Southern 500. The race will air at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.