William Byron wins Daytona 500 after late NASCAR wrecks

Matt Baker, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Auto Racing

William Byron withstood a pair of late wrecks to win Monday’s Daytona 500.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman finished second, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell was third.

The field for the NASCAR Cup Series’ season opener couldn’t even make it five full laps without a wreck as the angst started earlier than usual. A third, middle lane formed, with Harrison Burton charging to lead it. But John Hunter Nemechek’s No. 42 Toyota drifted into Burton, starting a chain reaction that collected seven cars, including former 500 champions Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon.

It was the only notable incident in the first two stages, unless you count the electrical issues that forced 2021 race winner Michael McDowell to drop out of contention.

The green flag racing featured 14 different leaders in the first 130 laps. They included some unlikely names: rookie Josh Berry; Noah Gragson — who replaced Tampa’s Aric Almirola at Stewart-Haas Racing — led only two laps in his first 39 races; and Todd Gilliland had led only 11 laps entering this weekend but paced the field for 16 laps through the first two stages.

Chase Elliott won the first stage, while Ryan Blaney won the second after dipping low to pass teammate Austin Cindric in the closing moments.

Elliott and Blaney were among the six former series champions trying to win their first 500. Another, Kyle Busch, was in the mix to break through, but his left front tire wasn’t secured properly during the pit stop before the final stage. His No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet had to pit again. Seventeen laps later, Busch was in the lead.

It didn’t last long. Corey LaJoie and Tampa-born Denny Hamlin passed him as the top of the pack remained fluid. Joey Logano seemed to take control of it midway through the final stage.

Ross Chastain inherited the lead after the final cycle of pit stops and was still in first when the inevitable major crash took place. It happened not far behind him on Lap 191, when Bowman got into Byron. Byron nudged Brad Keselowski, and the big one was underway. More than half the 42-car field (23 cars) was involved, including Hamlin, Logano, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.


“We were making the pass for the lead to win the Daytona 500; that’s about all you can ask for with eight laps to go,” Keselowski said. “It just didn’t work out.”

It did, however, work out well enough for Byron, whose No. 24 Chevrolet escaped major damage. That gave him a chance to win the final, four-lap shootout.

But that was cut short thanks to another big, predictable crash. Byron, the 26-year-old North Carolina native, drifted high to block Chastain as the lead pack charged toward the final lap. When Chastain cut low to try to take the lead, he clipped Cindric to trigger the wreck. NASCAR checked and determined that Byron took the white flag before the caution came out. The race was over.

It was Bowman’s 11th career Cup win and the ninth Daytona 500 triumph for Hendrick Motorsports.

Monday was the crowning achievement for one of the most fascinating rises in recent sports history. While most drivers start in go-karts and work their way through the ranks, Byron started racing digitally in a platform called iRacing. Without iRacing, he told the Tampa Bay Times four years ago, he would have been sitting behind a desk at college somewhere.

But after 104 virtual wins, Byron convinced his parents to let him race for real. Seven years after his first pixelated race, he was making his Cup debut as the successor to Jeff Gordon’s famed No. 24 Chevrolet. And four years after that, he’s a championship contender and a winner of NASCAR’s biggest race.

“He was already a superstar,” Gordon said. “He just went to another level…”

The race was initially scheduled to happen Sunday afternoon, but a rainy weekend postponed it to Monday — the third time Monday finish since 2012.

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