NASCAR Cup Series
Why Was the Cup Race at Martinsville so Uneventful?
Apr 10, 2022
It is as it ever was.
The Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 was in Victory Lane at Martinsville Speedway for the first since October 2015 but this time it was William Byron and not the legendary Jeff Gordon, but it sure looked like it though.
No, this wasn’t the T-Rex that controversially dominated the 1998 All-Star Race with Gordon and Evernham, but it was the Raptor 24 -- the branding designated to anytime Raptor Coatings partners with Byron and the iconic No. 24 team.
Gordon was the modern-day master of the historic half-mile. Sure, Gordon shares nine wins apiece with teammate Jimmie Johnson but the Hall of Fame driver really stands across the entire body of work with a 6.7 average finish across 47 starts.
Let that sink in for a moment: Gordon typically finished around the top-five practically every time he showed up at Martinsville over 20 years of starts at Ridgeway, Virginia and now his successor is beginning to carry the torch.
It was a challenge at first for Byron at Martinsville with three finishes of 20th or worse but consider the results since then -- 2, 8, 35, 4, 5 and 1. The average result is up to 15.1 and climbing and doesn’t even include his Truck Series victory on Thursday night.
Gordon has made an investment in Byron, not only as a driver, but also on a personal growth level. Gordon has spent a considerable amount of time with Byron, hoping to unlock more outward confidence and charisma out of the mild-mannered top prospect beyond their shared bond over the No. 24.
In fact, early during his rookie season, Byron got a random phone call from Gordon indicative of their relationship over the past five years.
"Jeff was like, 'Hey, let's ride up to Martinsville together. It wasn't even a question, it was hey, let's ride up to Martinsville together, I want to show you some things.' He walked me through this place," Byron recalled.
It didn't click at first because Byron had to lose a race for some of the synapses to come together. That came in 2019 when Byron was running second and had the fastest car on the track but wasn’t able to get around Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps.
"Just the things (Jeff) told me, I don't know if it really clicked until I ran second that year to Truex, but they started to click, and it was like, all right, that's the way you get around Martinsville.
"So just having his history in the 24 car definitely puts an emphasis on being good here because I feel like it's a place that is filled with history, and if you can win here in the 24 car it's going to be something you always cherish."
If you’re going to drive the 24, you had best be good at Martinsville, and this was a good first step for Byron and Rudy Fugle to replicating that success everywhere else.
"It’s definitely special," Byron said. "He’s got what, 93 wins and however many clocks? We've got a lot of clocks to chase, but it was cool to get that advice from him. Those little things that I picked up from him in my rookie year that I didn't really use for a few years, and then as soon as I got towards the front, I'm like, all right, that makes sense."
Gordon hasn’t driven the No. 24 since 2015, so he’s grown accustomed to seeing other drivers in the car, between Chase Elliott and Byron but he still has a personal fondness in the entry.
"When I stepped out of the car from the first time when Chase was driving the 24 at Daytona, I was in the TV booth and it pulled out on pit road, and that was kind of strange to me, I’ll be honest," Gordon said.
"But since then I’ve gotten used to it and comfortable, and I think William is a great fit for the sponsors, for the team, and certainly he’s get being the job done behind the wheel. So that’s exciting. That’s fun to see the 24 back in Victory Lane anytime."
And it’s starting to happen with regularity now.
After winning a race in both 2020 and 2021, Byron has now opened the first eight races with two wins, becoming the first repeat winner in Next Gen history at Atlanta and Martinsville. Byron spent most of last season near the top of the standings and is currently third in 2022 points.
For years, Byron was viewed as a prodigy and wunderkind and the 24-year-old is starting to deliver on the expectations. Candidly, he feels like this should have come together last year, too.
"Last year left us with a pretty bitter taste because I felt like we were so close to a lot of wins in that second half of the year, and man, it just felt like things would happen and things would break down right at the last minute," Byron said.
"It left me with a really bitter taste, and I felt like throughout this off-season I was pretty bitter about that stuff, but it was motivation because I felt like we could get into this year -- granted, it's a new car, we had to go through that adaptation process with the new car, but I feel like we're starting to learn now what we need.
"It's good to see, and now I feel like all of that desire and passion that we had in the off-season to prove to ourselves that we could win multiple races is there."
And that’s bad news for the competition if history is any indication.
Gordon spent three years making observers salivate over the raw potential, but also occasional bang their collective heads against the wall with the aggressive mistakes or a perceived inability to capitalize on fortune and opportunity.
By his fourth season, everything clicked, and a Hall of Fame career was well underway.
"I will say that I thought that William looked very good in this car from the very beginning," Gordon said. "He tested this car pretty early on in the process, and I just think his driving skills and the way he approaches things, and he works really hard at it, too, he studies a lot, and they give him a lot of information and he can retain it.
"I think that a young guy with that ability to get on the simulator as much as he does, he's all in. He’s doing Super Late Model races, he’s constantly taking in new information from these guys, working with his teammates, learning from them."
Byron knows what he and Fugle need to do to make that next step.
Lead laps. Check.
He’s already led more laps, 482, than his previous most last year, 425
Stages points. Check.
He’s already earned more playoff points, 12, than his previous most last year, 9
Win race(s). Check.
Two is already tied with the one win apiece each of the past two years.
"It’s all bonus points," Byron said. "Last year we were top 3 in points all year and that was great and we were feeling good and then we get to (the playoffs) and we're like, ‘oh, shoot, we're ninth in playoff points,’ and we’re starting each round in seventh, eighth, ninth or whatever.
"We’ve got to get those playoff points. We've learned that over the course of being in the playoffs the last three years or four years. It’s really important."