Under-the-radar moves can sometimes have the biggest impact. The NASCAR silly season brings lots of changes, and while some moves are flashier than others, sometimes it’s the ones that don’t make all the headlines that result in a team’s success.
Most of the moves people pay attention to are when drivers move from one team to another. But a crucial element of a driver’s success is his crew chief.
A crew chief is the team leader and makes all the decisions on the car leading up to and through race day. Sure, other members of the team bear responsibility, but when a team runs poorly, it’s usually the crew chief that gets changed or gets the blame.
One of the more interesting crew chief changes for the 2021 season will come by the way of Hendrick Motorsports and their No. 24 team. Current crew chief Chad Knaus will leave for a management role within the organization at the end of the year, which left an opening atop the pit box for their young driver, William Byron. Byron has made the playoffs the last two seasons under Knaus’ leadership but has yet to find victory lane on a consistent basis.
This week, Hendrick Motorsports announced the replacement for Knaus: current Truck Series crew chief Rudy Fugle. Fugle, if you are unfamiliar, has been the right-hand man for Kyle Busch Motorsports and was the crew chief for the No. 18 truck and Christian Eckes in 2020. He has been with the organization since 2013 and has 28 Truck Series victories and two championships in the division. Seven of his 28 wins came with Byron in 2016.
The hire was a curious hire as Hendrick Motorsports bypassed several other candidates with Cup Series experience as well as several candidates in the NASCAR Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports. Hendrick and JR Motorsports have a working relationship, and the team has pulled crew chiefs from JR in the past. Rarely does Hendrick hire someone from outside their realm to lead a Cup Series operation.
With all that considered, is Rudy Fugle the answer to William Byron and the No. 24 team’s struggles? Mark Kristl and Frank Velat debate in this week’s edition of 2-Headed Monster.
The Future Is Bright for Byron
Byron has achieved a great deal thus far in his racing career, and his future with Rudy Fugle atop the pit box will make him a better driver.
2021 will be Byron’s seventh full-time season racing in stock cars. He won the 2015 ARCA Menards Series East championship. In 2016, he won seven NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races en route to a fifth-place finish in the championship standings. He then graduated to the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2017 and won the title thanks in part to four wins. Since 2018, he has driven full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series and notched his first career Cup Series victory in this year’s regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway. On top of that, Byron won Rookie of the Year honors in consecutive years in the Truck Series, Xfinity Series, and Cup Series.
This year, Byron has already equaled his career-best number of top-10 finishes (13). While his number of laps led has decreased, he has accrued more lead-lap finishes. Those statistical achievements coupled with his August win at Daytona indicate his future is bright at Hendrick Motorsports.
Byron has progressed nicely with seven-time Cup Series champion crew chief Chad Knaus atop his pit box. When Knaus announced his move to become the VP of competition for Hendrick Motorsports, the organization sought someone who would continue to elevate Byron’s performance.
Enter Fugle. Fugle served as Byron’s crew chief during his lone full-time Truck Series season. Together, the pair appeared to be on a championship run until the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix Raceway, where Byron’s engine expired on lap 141 despite leading 112 of the 150 total laps. As a result, he failed to advance to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Rather than sulk in their disappointment at missing the Championship 4, Fugle and Byron got back to work for the season finale.
In that race, Byron won the pole, led 31 laps, and won the race. If he indeed made the Championship 4, he would have been crowned champion. Alas, he settled for the Rookie of the Year title.
After Byron left Kyle Busch Motorsports, Fugle has worked his magic with other drivers. He won the 2017 Truck Series championship with Christopher Bell, winning five races before leading Noah Gragson to a win and runner-up finish in the championship standings the following year. In 2019, Fugle guided the No. 51 team to six wins, 15 top fives, and 17 top 10s.
This year, Fugle has led rookie Christian Eckes to the playoffs, earning five top fives, and nine top 10s. Fugle is a superb Truck Series crew chief, and he is an excellent choice to be at the helm of the No. 24 team next year.
The camaraderie between Fugle and Byron will also translate into beneficial communication for the duo, as there will only be a handful of Cup Series races with practice and qualifying sessions next year.
“We have the owner, the driver, the people and the resources to continue that tradition,” Fugle said in the press release. “William is a great talent, and we have a very strong working relationship. I’m confident in what this team can accomplish and look forward to the challenge of competing at the Cup level.”
Byron shared similar sentiments.
Thrilled to work with Rudy next year on the @Hendrick24Team. I'm confident we will pick up where we've left off this year @TeamHendrick, and I look forward to being back with him as we were in 2016. pic.twitter.com/VaMvdlzdZC
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) October 26, 2020
The 2021 Cup Series season will be a career-best one for Byron. Although it will be his fourth full-time season in the Cup Series, he is only 22 years old and will be 23 at the start of next season. Byron has steadily improved behind the wheel of the No. 24. Rudy Fugle will guide him to further success. – Mark Kristl.
There Are More Problems Than Just the Crew Chief
There’s good news for William Byron. His crew chief for 2021, Rudy Fugle, is one of the best in the business. Unfortunately, that isn’t the problem area for the No. 24 team.
It’s no secret that Hendrick Motorsports has relinquished its position as the best in the sport. For nearly 20 years, HMS won more championships than it lost. But now, while Chase Elliott still visits victory lane with some regularity, the team often winds up somewhere between eighth and 15th.
The people at HMS have always been its strongest attribute. I believe that they still are. I won’t speculate on what the best way to right the ship is because I simply don’t know. But I can tell you what isn’t hindering Byron, and that would be his championship-winning crew chief.
Byron was a winning machine behind the wheel of a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck. A stunning engine failure in the next-to-last race at Phoenix was all that kept him from winning the title in 2016. Fugle, Byron’s crew chief at the time, was instrumental in his success and has shown a propensity for working with young talent in the past. But KBM was already the cream of the crop in the Truck Series at the time. Byron hopped into the best possible situation at the best possible time. I’m not sure if a monkey could’ve won in that truck, but it would’ve at least been competitive.
After Hendrick lured Byron away from the Toyota pipeline, Byron captured the championship with the pseudo-Hendrick Xfinity Series team, JR Motorsports. But the dominance ended there. Only weeks ago, Byron picked up his first career Cup victory in a superspeedway race that, frankly, anyone could win. His 105 Cup starts have generated little reason to think that he will ever attain the level of performance that he enjoyed in the lower levels of NASCAR.
Now we have the Fugle/Byron reunion with the idea that they’ll be able to replicate that prior success. Not happening. Am I supposed to believe that Darien Grubb and Chad Knaus forgot how to win? Surely both of them are completely capable of getting the most out of the famed HMS No. 24 and its upstart young driver.
Not everything is crumbling along Papa Joe Hendrick Blvd., but I simply don’t see how this is an upgrade. Perhaps the two had a chemistry that enabled them to work well together and HMS is trying to harness that. Not to mention, Knaus is a demanding guy, and maybe he just rubs Byron the wrong way. There would have to be something to this that the rest of the world doesn’t know. Otherwise, the move makes little sense and won’t help in the long run.
It ain’t broke but HMS is trying to fix it anyway. – Frank Velat