Being one of the early drivers to lock into the playoffs, Byron saved himself a lot of pressure – pressure he couldn’t avoid at this time one year ago.
Entering the 2020 regular season finale at Daytona International Speedway, Byron held the final playoff spot by four points over then-Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
In the race, Johnson earned eight more stage points than Byron. But with two laps to go in the scheduled distance, Johnson’s hopes were ruined when he was collected in an 11-car crash.
That set up overtime, where Byron held on to claim his first Cup victory and enter the post-season.
As the series returns to Daytona to finalize the 2021 playoff field (Saturday 7 p.m. ET, NBC), he’s glad that such stress is someone else’s problem this time.
“I don’t envy the position of the other guys that are in that position to try to either have to win or they’re right there on the bubble for the points,” he said Wednesday in a media teleconference. “It’s a tough position to be in.”
But Saturday is still a key race for Byron and the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team. They’re looking to earn as many playoff points as they can after securing only eight in the season’s first 25 races.
Byron currently sits fourth in the regular season standings with 833 points. If he stays there after Daytona, he’ll earn seven additional playoff points. Overtaking Kyle Busch (838 points) for third in the regular season standings would give him eight additional playoff points.
That’s on top of the maximum seven playoff points available for sweeping both stages and winning Saturday night’s race.
With all those options and with playoff points so vital, a crash and DNF on Saturday could diminish Byron’s hopes of advancing through the rounds.
So what’s the choice? Go all-out or get the car back to the garage in one piece?
“It’s definitely on our minds,” said Byron, who starts second on Saturday. “I felt like we and Kyle (Busch) have been close, the last three races. I think we had that unfortunate thing at Indy with the curb and that hurt us in the points. We’re … five points, I think, behind him and it would be really nice to get that position.
“Kyle is a good plate racer. He’s gotten better and better every time and closer to a win. He’s going to be tough to beat. So, we’ve just got to keep tabs on him and try race as hard as we can, and hopefully we can finish the race third in points.”
Regardless of what happens, Byron is set for his third Cup playoff appearance. In recent weeks, the team has focused on trying to recapture their early-season form.
His win in February at Homestead-Miami was the first of 11 consecutive top-10 finishes. But the summer has brought less consistent results, including a five-race stretch where Byron finished outside the top 20 in four of them.
In that stretch, Byron says that poor execution – partly on him, partly on the team – undid the speed that continued to be there.
But Byron is optimistic that a refocus for the No. 24 team will yield good results when they need them.
“We just kind of needed to clean it up,” he said. “I feel like after the summer break, we’ve really been a top-five team every week. I think we are really capable right now of executing well.
“We’ve gotten back to our roots in that and made our race cars just a little bit better, I think. So, I feel like we just have to continue to execute.”
“It sounds simple but it is really hard. We’re just trying to keep that going like we did in the early part of the season and hopefully the wins will come.”