Daytona 500 is never fair, but Byron's victory is no fluke

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- They don't call it the Fair American Race.

They do not call it the Satisfying American Race, the Predictable American Race or the Tidy American Race. It's the Great American Race. As in, great at keeping us guessing.

NASCAR's biggest single event, which was held for the 66th time on a rain-postponed Monday evening at the self-declared World Center of Racing, can be described by a list of lead characteristics that shifts and shuffles more chaotically than this year's Daytona 500 pinball machine of a leaderboard that produced 41 lead changes between 20 different drivers, five over the race's final 20 laps.

But fair? No. Never fair. That's the nature of a 2.5-mile superspeedway with tight quarters in skyscraper turns, an asphalt beast that has never made much sense to any eyes, be they engineers, spectators or the poor souls who have decided to drive around that monster at 200 mph.

"It's speedway racing. It's a lot of fun until it sucks," declared Joey Logano, who led a race-best 45 laps but ended his night 33rd, wrecked while running third and battling for the lead again with less than ten laps remaining. "It's usually the guys who start the wreck that survive. That's the frustrating part."

The car whose nose found the car that hit Logano? It was in the accordion collision only because another car had hit it when the cars ahead of them started scrambling and forced everyone behind them to suddenly slow down, and was driven William Byron. Byron's Chevy was popped from behind by teammate Alex Bowman, causing Byron to hit second place Brad Keselowski, who was turned into Logano, who then teamed up to take out 20 other cars behind them. That group included nine of the 20 drivers who had led the race at some point during the day.

When the checkered flag was finally shown nearly 30 minutes later, who was the winner? It was Byron.

See? Not fair.

"You're trying to make the right decisions, the right calls, to get yourself into position to win the race," said Jeff Gordon, who won this race twice driving the same No. 24 Chevy that he now helps oversee as chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. "But in this type of racing, when the finish is coming, there isn't much you can control but to put your foot into the gas and hope that whatever happens -- because something is going to happen -- that you be out in front of it."

Something definitely happened. And it did again when Byron was leading and barely made it across the start-finish line to begin the 199th and final circuit before another multicar crash unfurled behind him.

"Yes, you know that's coming. So, if you are fortunate to be in the lead -- and by the way, that also makes you the target -- you look in the rearview mirror and hope you can outrun it," Byron said in Victory Lane, his firesuit freshly saturated in champagne. "We did. And I can't believe it."

Neither could many of the tens of thousands of fans who showed up for a sunny, cool Monday afternoon green flag after Daytona had also been saturated in two days of near-record February Central Florida rainfall. They had watched fan favorites such as Byron's other Hendrick Motorsports teammates, former Cup champs Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, run up front. They had cheered and booed as they watched veterans such as Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Keselowski -- all future NASCAR Hall of Famers -- also spend time at the point, only to come up short. Hamlin failed to earn a historic fourth Daytona 500 win. The other three extended their Daytona 500 career droughts to a combined 0-for-54.

However, no one, not those in the grandstands Monday night nor those watching from home, should make the lazy mistake of viewing Byron's victory as a fluke.

"I'm always the 'other guy' right?" Byron half-joked, pointing in his very own building to Elliott and Larson, not to mention Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., even Terry Labonte, Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine and the other legends who have won at Hendrick Motorsports. His win Monday was the team's record-tying ninth Great American Race triumph and came on the 40th anniversary of its very first Cup race, when Bodine finished eight in the 1984 Daytona 500. "That has been hard on me. I have probably let it bother me too much, but it has also been a big motivator for me. I came into this year with a chip on my shoulder because of it. I am a quiet guy. My background in racing isn't typical. I started out in gaming, a kid who was just a NASCAR fan, and I got a relatively late jump on driving. I don't come from a long line of racers. But OK, underestimate me. See how that works out."

Make no mistake, this race produces flukes. Or, put more kindly, unforeseen victories. One year ago, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and little JTG Daugherty Racing earned the first win for the driver in seven years and for the team in nearly a decade, and did it in the sport's most prestigious race. In 2022, Austin Cindric, a de facto rookie, earned his first -- and so far, only -- Cup Series win. In 2021, Michael McDowell snapped a career 0-for-357 winless streak by outlasting a demolition derby of a 500 and pulling into a pandemic-emptied Victory Lane.

But Byron led the Cup Series with six wins one year ago and made the cut for the season finale Championship Four. The year before he won two races. In seven years of driving at NASCAR's top level, he has made the Playoffs six times, missing only his rookie campaign, and has now posted at least one win in each of the past five years. His 11th career win not only all but guarantees him a spot in this year's fall playoff field, it also moves him past Donnie Allison on NASCAR's all-time victories list. Allison was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last month.

Byron is 26 years old.

"What we know about this race is that we don't know what is going to happen. For a long time, we have hauled zero trophies home, but instead we have hauled home a lot of wrecked race cars," an emotional Rick Hendrick explained, quick to remind that, yes, this was his ninth Daytona 500 win, but his first in a decade. "There are always a lot of surprises in this race and at this place. Mostly bad ones. But no one should be surprised that William Byron is a Daytona 500 champion."

Hendrick reached over and grabbed the arm of Gordon.

"He reminds you of this guy back in the day," he said. "He has so much talent and he's just getting started. It doesn't seem fair, does it?"