By the end of Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, Byron appeared to have run well enough to make the 2020 Cup Series playoff field by points.
But on the final two-lap overtime restart, he grabbed the lead from Denny Hamlin then deftly held off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott to take the victory – his first in 98 career starts.
Byron, thanks to his victory, and Matt DiBenedetto, on points, were the last two drivers to fill in the 16-driver playoff field.
“I had confidence in (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and the guys that we could get four tires (on the last pit stop) and make the most of it. So, I’m just extremely blessed, and this is incredible," Byron said. "It’s been a hard couple of years in the Cup Series and trying to get my first win and gel with this team. These guys did an awesome job today and got us in the playoffs and it’s amazing.”
“This is probably the hardest track to points-race. We had a great Stage 2 and kind of got back in the pack and got shuffled when everyone went single-file. I thought my hopes were up there. And we were racing around the No. 21 (Matt DiBenedetto) and the No. 48 (Johnson) in the final stage and I was like man, 'I’ve got to really make something happen.'
"Luckily, I was able to push the No. 43 (Bubba Wallace) and he and the No. 22 (Joey Logano) made some contact and opened up a hole for me, and I wasn’t going to lift. It was awesome."
Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson missed out on the playoffs in his final fulltime NASCAR season after getting caught up in a late-race accident.
Hamlin ended up finishing third in the race, Martin Truex Jr. fourth and Bubba Wallace rounded out the top-five.
Completing the top-10 drivers were Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Brendan Gaughan, Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski.
Following the break between Stages 2 and 3, several lead-lap cars pit with Joey Logano the first off pit road. On the restart on Lap 106, Logano was followed by Truex and Clint Bowyer.
Truex quickly powered to the lead on the restart as Logano dropped into second.
On Lap 119, Truex moved to the outside line to block Johnson, only to see Kyle Busch powered past both and into the lead.
With 35 laps remaining in the race, Kyle Busch remained out front while a host of Chevrolet drivers elected to make a green-flag pit stop for fuel and tires to make it to the finish of the race.
On Lap 127, a group of Toyotas made their stops, mostly for fuel-only. That left Logano in the lead.
Most of the Ford drivers hit pit road for their final stops on Lap 132. That allowed Kyle Busch to cycle back into the lead with 28 laps remaining.
With 25 to go in the race, Kyle Busch remained out front followed closely by Hamlin, Byron, Kurt Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
James Davison spun in Turn 3 and hit the wall to bring out the first caution of the race for an on-track incident.
Several lead-lap cars hit pit road with Byron the first off pit road. Kyle Busch remained on the track and led the way when the race returned to green on Lap 148.
On Lap 152, Tyler Reddick cut in front of Kyle Busch to take the lead off Turn 4, made contact with Busch, who then got into Erik Jones, which triggered several other crashes behind them.
Among the other drivers involved were Truex, Stenhouse, Michael McDowell, Ryan Newman, Ryan Preece and Austin Dillon. The race was placed under a red flag for nearly 11 minutes to clean the track of debris.
“I was just digging on the bottom. I thought that was the best spot to be,” Kyle Busch said. “We’ve been running good as a team, we just haven’t had the results to show.
“It’s been a consistent season. Now we’ve got to lay down everything we’ve got – Darlington, Bristol and Richmond.”
The race returned to green on Lap 156 with Hamlin in the lead followed by Reddick and Buescher.
Exiting Turn 4 on the restart lap, Reddick grabbed the lead working the inside line only to see Hamlin moved back to the front one lap later.
Racing for the lead in Turn 2 with two laps remaining, Logano slammed into the side of Wallace after a bump from Hamlin.
Byron then drove through the middle of Logano and Wallace, making contact with both. Logano slowed and spun, triggering a multi-car wreck behind him.
Among the others collected were Johnson, Matt Kenseth, DiBenedetto, Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez. The race was stopped for nearly six minutes to clean the track of debris.
On the start of overtime, Hamlin led the way followed by Byron and Bowyer.
Logano held off a spirited challenge from Truex to complete a sweep of wins in the first two stages.
Bowyer finished third, Kurt Busch fourth and Johnson rounded out the top-five.
Following the break between Stages 1 and 2, most of the lead-lap cars pit with Logano the first off pit road. Hamlin had to restart from the rear of the field for not entering pit road single-file.
On the restart on Lap 56, Bell remained on the track and in the lead followed by Jones and Kevin Harvick.
Jones quickly jumped into the lead on the restart with a shove from Johnson.
On Lap 66, a large contingent of Chevrolets elected to make their green-flag pit stop together to take on enough fuel to make it to the end of the stage.
Kyle Busch inherited the lead once the Chevys made their stop.
With 30 laps to go in the second stage, Kyle Busch maintained a small lead over Stenhouse and Nemechek.
With 20 laps remaining in the stage, Suarez had cycled to the lead as several drivers were navigating fuel strategy to make it to the finish.
Ty Dillon ran second, Wallace third, Kyle Busch fourth and Hamlin had worked his way back to fifth.
On Lap 87, another group of drivers hit pit road for fuel – Ty Dillon, Wallace, Corey LaJoie and Gaughan.
Logano, with help from Blaney, cycled back to the lead on Lap 91.
With five laps to go in the stage, the original group of Chevy drivers who pit early in the stage finally caught back up to the lead pack.
Kyle Busch and Suarez both pit for fuel on Lap 98.
Logano repeatedly blocked the advance of Jones and held him off to take the Stage 1 win.
Reddick finished third, Ryan Blaney fourth and Johnson rounded out the top-five.
Harvick, who started on the pole, got passed in Turn 3 on the first lap by Truex but Harvick came back on Lap 2 to reclaim the top spot.
On Lap 5, Byron got around Harvick to take the lead for the first time in the race. Harvick reclaimed the lead one lap later.
With a push from Bowman, Byron returned to the lead on Lap 8.
On Lap 15, Harvick fell off the pace as his engine ran hot with a large piece of debris on the grille of his No. 4 Ford. Harvick was able to get the debris to fall off his car.
NASCAR displayed a competition caution on Lap 21 to allow teams an opportunity to check tire wear. Most lead-lap cars elected to pit but several stayed out including Byron, who remained the lead when the race returned to green on Lap 25.
On Lap 30, Jones moved into the lead powered by help from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates.
Working the bottom lane with some help, Byron drove into the lead on Lap 35. Logano took over the top spot one lap later thanks to a shove from his teammate, Blaney.
With 10 laps remaining in the first stage, Logano remained out front followed by Blaney, Jones, Kyle Busch and Bell.
Austin Dillon and Bowyer both had to start the race from the rear of the field – Dillon for failing pre-race inspection twice and Bowyer for unapproved adjustments to his No. 14 Ford.