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How can anyone stay mad at William Byron, he of the boyish looks and college books? Even Denny Hamlin, who has as good a reason as anyone to be upset with the driver of the No. 24 Chevy, regards one of the biggest blow-ups of the 2022 NASCAR season as water under the bridge.

Based on what we’ve seen in 2023, that early-autumn day may have changed Byron forever. The two Cup Series drivers discussed – and laughed about – the incident this week on Hamlin’s Actions Detrimental podcast.

William Byron did the unthinkable with the caution flag out

Had it not been for the Las Vegas infield confrontation between Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson three weeks later, we probably would have spent an inordinate amount of last offseason rehashing the playoff drama between William Byron and Denny Hamlin and wondering what might happen next.

Byron and Hamlin got into it late in the playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway, which kicked off the second phase of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Shortly before a Martin Truex Jr. tire issue triggered a caution on Lap 268, Hamlin got up the track with his No. 11 Toyota and caused Byron to kiss the outside wall exiting Turn 2. The damage was minor, but Byron was seething. With the pace car leading the field ahead of the restart, the Hendrick Motorsports driver bumped Hamlin, sending the Toyota into the infield.

Byron committed a huge no-no, but NASCAR officials missed the incident in real time and did not allow Hamlin to reclaim his original position for the restart. He went from being in contention for a victory to finishing 10th, three spots behind Byron.

Denny Hamlin says he turned William Byron into ‘Hulk’

At the time of the Texas Motor Speedway playoff race, William Byron was in his fifth full-time Cup Series season but still just 24 years old and working toward his degree at Liberty University, one of his sponsors.

Byron came into 2022 fresh off a year in which he scored a dozen top-five finishes but made it to Victory Lane only once, leading some to conclude he wasn’t aggressive enough to battle for wins. Some of that talk went away when his top-five finishes did – he registered just five last year – leading up to the episode with Denny Hamlin in the playoffs.

Though he half-heartedly asserted the contact with Hamlin wasn’t intentional, Byron’s action was the buzz of the week. NASCAR initially fined him $50,000 and docked the driver 25 points. Upon appeal, the points were restored but the fine was doubled.

Nevertheless, the incident served notice to the rest of the Cup Series field that there was a limit as to how much Byron would tolerate.

“’Willie B.,’ the introverted child from his younger days, turned into Hulk and says, ‘I’m going to get this guy,’” Hamlin said on the podcast. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you retaliate.”

Byron’s response: “I definitely meant to send a message. But when you went spinning through the infield, I was like, ‘Oh, s***. That’s not good.’”

William Byron is squarely in the championship hunt

Denny Hamlin enters his car prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 11, 2023. | Logan Riely/Getty Images
Denny Hamlin enters his car prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 11, 2023. | Logan Riely/Getty Images

William Byron scored back-to-back wins at Las Vegas and Phoenix early this year, then added a career-best third win at Darlington as part of a stretch of seven top-10 finishes in eight races. As a result, he’s second in the standings two-thirds of the way through the regular season despite absorbing a 60-point equipment penalty.

Road courses, not at all unlike the street course that the Cup Series will be tackling on Sunday in Chicago, have been his nemesis early in the Charlotte, North Carolina, native’s career, but he did finish 14th at Sonoma in the final race between the midseason break.

If he can perform comparably in Chicago and then later this summer at Watkins Glen and on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield circuit, Byron will be well-positioned to make up the 18-point gap on Martin Truex Jr. to secure the 15 playoff points that go to the regular-season champion.

Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].

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