It took William Byron 62 races to win with legendary crew chief Chad Knaus atop the pit box.
The connection with new crew chief Rudy Fugle came together much quicker.
Byron led 102 of 267 laps on Sunday (Feb. 28) to win the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, claiming his first victory with Fugle just three races into the new duo’s pairing.
The couple have history that dates back to Kyle Busch Motorsports and Byron’s phenomenal 2016 Rookie of the Year season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Back then, they won a rookie-record seven events together before a blown engine derailed a Championship 4 bid at Phoenix Raceway.
Almost five years later, hardly anyone anticipated the two would spark a connection this well right off the bat after Knaus, who won 82 races over 17 seasons with Jimmie Johnson, left the pit box to become Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of competition.
“Obviously, you have to back it up with results,” Byron said of the addition of Fugle to the team. “I think for me, the results come when you have people like that to work with. You think on the same page, and [you have] somebody who puts that kind of effort in.
“[Fugle] puts a lot of effort in, but he’s obviously very intelligent. I feel like for me, it goes back to the truck days and what we did there, the feelings that I had in those race cars.”
We did it!!! Today was amazing, we did our homework. Rudy and the guys brought an awesome car. Executed like we needed to. Thanks for all those that believe in me to give me this chance. What a night. First win for Rudy! Very blessed. pic.twitter.com/1ZIIOx2EaZ
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) March 1, 2021
To that point, Fugle is not coming into the Cup Series as a total unknown commodity, but the success he saw with Byron admittedly quieted in the years that followed.
In 2017, Fugle guided Christopher Bell to five wins and a Truck Series championship before success began to dwindle. He earned one checkered flag with Noah Gragson in 2018 before moving to a revolving door of drivers in 2019 when he took Kyle Busch to victory lane five times. Atop the pit box for Christian Eckes last year, Fugle saw the No. 18 truck team make the playoffs but failed to win.
Despite those recent struggles, the move to Cup was one Fugle gave significant thought to before jumping after a long, successful tenure at KBM.
“The past nine years at Kyle Busch Motorsports, I had an amazing job, so it had to be the right situation for sure to move on,” Fugle said. “And William being ready and HMS is an amazing organization, Mr. H and great sponsors, it definitely was the right opportunity.
“I just wanted to prove that I could — to everyone, to myself, to everybody, that yeah, I could do it at this level. So we want to do it a whole lot more. It’s only my first win, so we’ve definitely got to get my second win and the next one after that. As a group, this is just great. Just an awesome team, they’re helping me get where we need to be.”
That Truck Series knowledge, Fugle noted, is beneficial for where the current Cup Series aero package sits at intermediate tracks. The rules utilize higher downforce and lower horsepower: 550 compared to 750 at shorter tracks and road courses.
“The 550 (hp) stuff is pretty similar to the trucks,” Fugle said. “You’re trying to balance speed versus handling and drag versus downforce. It’s a lot of the same stuff, which is fun.
“Most importantly, I think the car needs the same thing that a truck needs to do at a mile-and-a-half. That part is fun, getting into this season and fighting the same type of little things in the war rooms, trying to decide on do you need straightaway speed or corner speed that week.”
And while Fugle can figure out how to set up a car well in this package, the chemistry between him and Byron helps iron out the specifics much quicker.
“What helped us about the previous relationship was the fact that we’ve worked together before and I knew him,” Fugle said. “I knew how to push his buttons, I knew how to motivate him, and that helped buy me some time to learn these Cup cars that I don’t know yet.”
The transition away from an experienced Cup crew chief like Knaus is not one Byron took lightly. But he admitted Sunday the past three seasons (his 2018 rookie year was crew chiefed by Darian Grubb) weighed on him mentally. Championed as one of the sport’s top prospects, Byron won just once, in August 2020 at Daytona International Speedway despite being paired with some of the brightest engineering minds in the sport.
“I think I had to re-learn what things make me tick,” Byron said. “I took for granted maybe some of the situations that I was in, how smooth they went. You have to learn how to — when your car is bad, then you’re trying to stay on the lead lap. There’s nothing like that at the Cup level when everybody is good.
“But I think it was a lot of little things. Really had to go to work, study and also just kind of wait for the right opportunity. You can’t really get too down on yourself because the opportunity just has to come.”
Rudy Fugle won 7 times in 2016 with @WilliamByron in Trucks and now has win No. 1 with him in Cup. Fugle's third career Cup start.
💭 "We want to learn how to be a winning race team. We're not a championship team yet, but over the next 20-some weeks, we're gonna become one." 🏆 pic.twitter.com/edK501xDlh
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) March 1, 2021
Perhaps the biggest key to Byron’s early success in 2021 is that he worked with Knaus the prior two seasons, setting him up for the next phase of his career despite their disappointing performances together.
“Chad prepped William to get to this point. I could not have done that three years ago,” he said. “I couldn’t have prepped to learn how to work on Cup cars and prepped William, and then he built a great team. Not one other person has been changed out on this race team. I came in, and this was an amazing race team. We’ve got all the right pieces, and they’re young and they’re ready. We should be able to go and do the right things, so [it’s] super exciting.”
Byron still holds Knaus’ leadership close to his heart after seeing the personal and professional growth Byron has made over the past two years specifically.
“Chad brought me from running 20th in the Cup Series to making the playoffs two years in a row, and I think that was huge,” Byron said. “Gave me a chance to really learn under the fire and kind of put myself in some situations that I could learn from some veteran drivers. I had a couple run-ins with Kyle [Busch] at one time, Brad [Keselowski]. None of that stuff would have happened if I wasn’t up there and fast. That’s a lot of credit to Chad.
“I think what Chad did well was the preparation side. The team that he’s put around me with young guys is here to stay. He found a lot of good people that want to come to work every day, want to do a good job, so I credit that to him.”