William Byron (24) celebrates his win with team owner Rick...

William Byron (24) celebrates his win with team owner Rick Hendrick in the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Credit: AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack

FORT WORTH, Texas — When William Byron first met Rick Hendrick a decade ago, the teenager who had learned racing on a computer wasn't all that confident how things would work out as he revealed his goal to drive one day for the NASCAR team owner.

There is certainly no lack of confidence now for Byron, who at 26 is getting race wins for NASCAR's winningest team, and some significant ones at that. A week after Byron's 13th career win in a 1-2-3 finish for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville as the team marked the 40th anniversary of its first victory, the series is back at Texas, where he led only the final six laps last September to get Hendrick's 300th victory.

“For me, just felt like a full-circle moment. Just with all the history of Martinsville, with being in the 24 (car) .... talking to Rick on the phone and then going to celebrate with him,” Byron said Saturday.

Byron, who qualified sixth at Texas, opened this season by winning the Daytona 500, the record-matching ninth for Hendrick but first since 2014. He also won three weeks ago in the other Texas race in Austin.

Hendrick teammate Kyle Larson is the points leader and earned the pole for Sunday's race at Texas, a 1 1/2-mile track like Las Vegas, where he got his victory this season. He led 99 laps at Texas last fall but got loose and spun into the wall with 85 laps to go. Larson won from the pole in the 2021 fall race there, where he also won NASCAR's All-Star race there earlier that year.

“It’s always been a really good racetrack for me,” Larson said. “Last year, I just screwed up on one of the late restarts and spun and crashed, but we had a dominant race car that day. Hopefully we’ll have another race car just like it.”

Larson's 18 wins since joining Hendrick in 2021 include the team's record-setting 269th victory that year at Charlotte Motor Speedway to pass Petty Enterprises for the most.

William Byron, right, and team owner Rick Hendrick hold up...

William Byron, right, and team owner Rick Hendrick hold up the trophy after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023. Credit: AP/LM Otero

Byron grew up in NASCAR’s hotbed of Charlotte, North Carolina, and idolized seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car for Hendrick. Now Byron is in his seventh season in the famed No. 24 that Jeff Gordon drove to win four Cup titles and 93 races.

“I was put into Jeff’s car and that was a lot of pressure. And I had to just, we had to, kind of make it our own,” Byron said. “Jeff is a great mentor and a great asset for our team. ... He’s made it known when I got in the car that it’s my own."

After getting to victory lane for the first time in his 98th start, in 2020, Byron got another win in 2021 and two more in 2022 before a Cup-high six wins last year. His three victories this season are on drastically different tracks — the 2 1/2-mile tri-oval at Daytona, the road course in Austin and that half-mile paperclip at Martinsville.

“I think I started a little bit slower than I wanted to start. I feel like some of that was just chemistry and just learning the Cup Series as a whole, and I probably just didn’t get the most out of those first couple of years that I would like to,” Byron said. “Once we started winning races in the third year, won a race, and then the next year we won another one and really started to win races at places that are difficult to win, I just felt like we started to click."

NASCAR driver William Byron attends a media event at Hendrick...

NASCAR driver William Byron attends a media event at Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, N.C., Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. Credit: AP/Chuck Burton

JIMMIE'S BACK

The 48-year-old Johnson will race at Texas for the first time since 2020, as a driver-owner in the No. 84 Chevrolet for Legacy Motor Club. Johnson finished 28th at Daytona in his only start so far this season. He has raced 35 times at Texas, where he is the all-time leader with seven wins and 1,152 laps led.

“It's funny now the way the place drives. Just have a lot of anxiety about Turns 1 and 2,” said Johnson, whose last win here was in 2017, the first year after the track was repaved and reconfigured in those turns. “The previous configuration, that was really the most fun that you can have on a mile-and-a-half, was Turns 1 and 2. So bummed that it's still not there.”

That was before practice, when Johnson got loose in those turns and the No. 84 went into the outside wall. The team was working to repair that primary car for Sunday's race.

SPRING SOLO

For the first time in 20 years, the only Cup race at Texas will be in the spring. The track hosted two Cup races each season from 2005-20, but the last three years the lone stop each year was a playoff race in the fall. The track was a spring-only stop from its opening in 1997 through 2004.

ODDS AND ENDS

Texas was reduced from 334 laps to 267 last September, the first time it wasn’t scheduled for 501 miles. It is set for 400.5 miles again this year, the 44th race at Texas. ... Larson, like he was last fall, is listed as the favorite to win Sunday, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

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