William Byron, Rudy Fugle showcase their chemistry in Homestead victory
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Chad Knaus owns one of the greatest runs as a NASCAR Cup crew chief, as he earned seven championships with Jimmie Johnson.
But he won only once in two years as crew chief for William Byron. Knaus had the smarts — but maybe not the connection with the young driver.
As Knaus opted for a management position at Hendrick Motorsports to oversee all the crew chiefs and the competition department, Byron asked for the crew chief he had connected with the most in his career.
The only problem was that Rudy Fugle had a great job as competition director and crew chief at Kyle Busch Motorsports. Fugle had won dozens of races, had ruled in that division and didn’t necessarily seek anything else.
But Fugle knew the connection he had with Byron, and the lure of trying to win on Sundays proved to be too much. Days after the 2020 season ended, Fugle had a new job.
It didn’t take the Byron-Fugle combination many races to show that chemistry can make a difference, as Byron won in the third race of the 2021 season on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Much like a coach or an offensive coordinator with a quarterback, sometimes a driver and crew chief bring out the best in each other because, well, just because.
"It’s just that we have that ...," Byron said as he looked for the right word. "We mesh, and it is what it is."
What it is is the potential for awesomeness. Byron won seven NASCAR Truck Series races in 2016 with Fugle as his crew chief. At the time, Byron was just 18 years old.
In the next four years – one in Xfinity and three in Cup – Byron won just five races. Granted, the competition was much fiercer, but Byron didn’t enjoy as many big moments as he did with Fugle.
"He knows how to push my buttons and get me motivated and get the answers out of me that he needs to make the car better," Byron said.
Nothing showed that more than Sunday at a track where Byron had one top-10 finish in three career Cup starts. He also had no finish better than eighth in his previous 10 races at 1.5-mile tracks.
Yet there Byron was Sunday, driving as he did when he won a truck race with Fugle at Homestead in 2016.
"[Having] chemistry is huge," Fugle said. "I think William is really good at measuring the grip of the tire, and I think he's good at anticipating the grip loss.
"I always thought Homestead, maybe not on the [Cup] results, was good for him. This is a great race track for his style."
Style or not, a driver is judged by results. Those couldn’t have been any better Sunday.
Both Byron and Fugle indicated that they couldn’t have achieved what they did Sunday without Knaus, who replaced Darian Grubb as Byron’s crew chief after Byron’s first season.
Fugle is the only newcomer to the Byron team. He has all the people Knaus has groomed the past two years.
"Chad prepped William to get to this point," Fugle said. "I could not have done that three years ago. I couldn't have prepped to learn how to work on Cup cars and prepped William, and then he built a great team.
"I came in, and this was an amazing race team. We've got all the right pieces."
Knaus was also the mentor Byron needed to race competitively in the Cup Series. As Byron got into on-track spats with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, Knaus could help Byron through such times, which are part of the growth of any driver trying to avoid getting pushed around or intimidated on the track.
"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. "It 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."
Once Byron understood the pressure, understood the approach he needed to compete in Cup, he needed the crew chief who knew how to motivate him and knew what adjustments to make through the tone of his voice on the radio.
That was Fugle, and they hope they can build themselves into one of the great driver-crew chief combinations.
"I had an amazing job," Fugle said. "So it had to be the right situation, for sure, to move on, and ... it definitely was the right opportunity.
"And then I just wanted to prove to everyone, to myself, to everybody, that I could do it at this level. So we want to do it a whole lot more."
Fugle likely will get what he wants. As long as Byron is behind the wheel, this duo will find itself in victory lane more often. Byron is coming into his own as a driver, and Fugle will get better and better as he leans on the depth and tools at Hendrick Motorsports.
No one is going to predict a championship for Byron in 2021. That would be a bit too big of a jump. But Byron eventually might point to the victory Sunday at Homestead as the moment he and Fugle started laying the foundation of a championship run in the years to come.
"The results come when you have people like that to work with," Byron said. "You think on the same page, and somebody who puts that kind of effort in -- he puts a lot of effort in.
"He's obviously very intelligent. I feel like for me, it goes back to the truck days and what we did there and the feelings that I had in those race cars and the things that I wanted to have in my Cup car."
Thinking out loud
Noah Gragson should be frustrated with the way his Xfinity race ended, as he had a nine-second lead when he ran into the back of David Starr with a couple of laps remaining. Starr apparently had a flat tire and moved up the track into the high groove.
But this isn’t one for which Starr should get the bulk of the blame, like Gragson wants to believe.
Starr was on the lead lap, so running hard to stay on the lead lap is fine. It isn’t like Starr went up to the wall on purpose to hinder Gragson; he did it because he lost control of his car.
Whether Gragson should have run the low groove instead of the high one is debatable, but the bottom line is this stuff happens. Gragson will have to put it behind him and know that sometimes the racing gods just aren’t on your side, as he has learned the hard way the past few races at Homestead.
Stat of note
At 23 years, 2 months and 30 days old, William Byron became the youngest Cup winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
They said it
"You don't want to be kind of like the one-win-wonder guy, so I think for me, once you get in that two-[win] category, you start building toward the next ones." — William Byron
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass.