AUTO: MAY 14 NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400
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Throwback Weekend was a memory William Byron initially wanted thrown aside. At Darlington Raceway last May, he held the lead down the stretch before Joey Logano flat out pushed him out of the way. Roughed up on the racetrack and rattled off it, a promising two-win start to the season ended without a top-5 finish until the Bristol Night Race that fall.

What a difference a year makes.

This time around, Byron let everyone else make contact out front, emerging ahead of a Ross Chastain-Kyle Larson fracas late in the final stage to earn his first career Darlington victory on Sunday. He reaches the halfway point in this 2023 regular season with a career-high three wins in 13 races, topping the circuit in laps led (596) and top-10 finishes (seven) while building a newfound level of confidence.

A lot of that comes from crew chief Rudy Fugle, reunited with Byron in 2021 after they trounced the competition when the youngster built his career in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series. Sunday marked their sixth victory together in 85 starts, compared to just one in 72 when Byron was paired with a future Hall of Famer, seven-time championship crew chief Chad Knaus.

"At our core, we trust each other in the decisions that we make," Byron said of Fugle Sunday. "I think that goes a long way in this sport."

Fugle added that it's all been a team effort.

"Each one of us has picked each other up at different times," Fugle said. "Each part of the team has picked each other up all year long, so you prove that it's a team [effort]. We've known that. We've tried to build that culture in year three."

Of course, year three was when the iconic driver of the No. 24, Jeff Gordon, reached championship-level performance. A seven-win season in 1995 ended with a TKO of Dale Earnhardt Sr. to give Gordon his first title at age 24.

Could the Fugle-Byron pairing, in Byron's age-25 season, be poised for the same type of breakout after earning the 100th victory all-time in Hendrick's No. 24?

"Competing up front almost every single weekend, racing with the competitors he's racing with builds your confidence in a way where you can be more calm," Gordon, now the vice-chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, said. "Because something might happen that gets you behind, but you've got confidence in yourself, your pit crew, your team, we'll get it back. I think that's what I'm seeing, kind of the evolution of William and the whole team this year."

Traffic Report

Green: Chase Elliott -- Elliott was hard on himself despite a third-place finish, claiming he struggled in traffic "way worse than other guys do driving this caliber of a car." But a quick look at the overall results shows just how quickly this Hendrick driver has bounced back from a snowboarding injury that cost him six races. He's finished no lower than 12th since his return and cut the deficit on the playoff bubble from 134 to 63 in just five weeks, turning a playoff bid on points into a real possibility.

Yellow: Bubba Wallace -- A fifth-place finish for Wallace had to be considered a miraculous recovery after trouble on an early pit stop dropped him to around 20th, trapped in traffic the rest of the day. But Wallace, whose car was impressive in clean air, had to be wondering what might have been after running a strong third in stage one to Martin Truex Jr.

Red: Austin Dillon -- So much more was expected from Dillon with Kyle Busch's arrival at Richard Childress Racing. He's racked up more DNFs (four) than top-10 finishes (three) and was knocked out in a mid-race Darlington crash that left him speeding away from the track without comment. A 60-point penalty last month for an illegal underwing at Martinsville has put him in a difficult position, 109 points outside the playoffs and likely in win-or-else mode going forward.

Speeding Ticket: Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones -- A Suarez speeding penalty was costly at Darlington in a race where passing proved difficult, even during long green-flag runs. It took him from inside the top 5 to 30th, then out of the race after getting victimized in a mid-race wreck.

That crash was caused by Jones, last fall's Southern 500 winner whose miserable season for Legacy Motor Club continued when a tire simply came off his No. 43 car on the backstretch.

That'll lead to a two-race suspension for two crew members after derailing a much-needed top-10 finish or better for Jones, who wound up two laps back in 25th.


Ross Chastain found himself in hot water yet again after more contact between him and Kyle Larson. It all started on a late restart with both drivers battling in the front row. Lost in the shuffle of a major wreck behind them, as Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano made contact, was Larson pushing the No. 1 car up into the wall in retaliation for getting inadvertently taken out at Dover just two weeks ago.

"He just got us right in it," Chastain said on the radio then. "He didn't have to hit us harder than that."

His move to squeeze Larson up the same way on the following restart wound up crashing both drivers, leaving Chastain heading back to the infield on a tow truck with Larson limping home in 20th place.

Larson refused comment after the race, while crew chief Cliff Daniels did the talking for him, claiming Chastain has now taken them out of three races on the radio before openly chatting with Chevrolet officials on pit road along with Gordon.

Once again, Chastain took responsibility after the incident.

"I got really tight," he said. "Drove up and turned myself. I wanted to squeeze [Larson], I wanted to push him up... but definitely didn't want to turn myself into the wall."

That explanation wasn't enough for Larson's car owner, Rick Hendrick, who said he expected his drivers to "hold their ground" when getting wrecked and suggested Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks should have a talk with the current Cup points leader.

"[Chastain] doesn't have to be that aggressive," Hendrick said. "You just don't run people up in the fence or just... he's going to make a lot of enemies. It's hard to win a championship when you've got a lot of paybacks out there."