Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with William Byron

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Last year, William Byron took the Camping World Truck Series and made it his own with a record seven victories as a rookie before a blown engine eliminated him from the playoffs before the championship round.

Now, the 19-year-old is a rookie again, this time in the Xfinity Series.

He hasn’t had the cannonball entry he had a year ago, but Byron is proving his worth, entering the sixth race of the year at Texas Motor Speedway second in the points standings behind JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler.

The hightlight of his season so far was winning the pole at Phoenix Raceway.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed

NBC Sports: What was your first ‘Welcome to the Xfinity Series’ moment?

Byron: Probably at Daytona, the intensity there at the end of the race and really throughout the race. Then Atlanta, some of the restarts. I don’t know, really racing around guys like Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski. It’s been really interesting to learn from them and see what they do better, see how they maximize their cars. That’s been the biggest challenge — restarts  and just being as aggressive as those guys. It’s been good overall so far. Just continue to learn from those guys. Hopefully, we can improve a few spots and be in contention to win.

NBC Sports: Can you give a specific example of learning something in a race?

Byron: Yeah, probably pushing guys on restarts and getting through the gears and everything. The things that look easy when you’re just watching it, then you get out there with those guys, and they really do a good job of all that stuff, maximizing it. Maybe just the restarts, the intensity of that. How to pick the right lanes, how to keep the guy in front of you moving forward so you can move forward. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. (Fontana) was a lesson there and was kind able to lead for a little bit (one lap) … That’s encouraging to know I can get up there and compete. Hopefully, we can continue to translate that into laps led and that’s going to make for wins.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: The last time we talked like this, we discussed how busy your schedule was with the inclusion of school. How busy is your week now compared to last year in the Truck series?

Byron: There’s a lot more personal things, or not personal, sponsor things and team-related things that are important during the week to make sure you stay on top with our race schedules. There’s a lot more it takes to run well and just continue to build on what you guys have been doing each week. I’d say spending a lot more time at the shop. Been in meetings at the shop each week, sponsor appearances during the week. Last week, even though it was an off week, Monday I had a team meeting. Tuesday, I went up to Axalta in Philadelphia, and Wednesday we were working at the shop all day working on the race seats.

Thursday, we went to Texas with Dale (Earnhardt Jr.), and Friday we were working on the seats as well. It’s always kind of something. I think that’s the difference. Still doing the school work as well, which is definitely a challenge. As long as you make sure to maximize the time that you have … it usually works out OK. Just want to be rested and ready to go when you get to the race track.

NBC Sports: Which teammates have you bonded with the most?

Byron: Probably Elliott Sadler. Justin Allgaier has been a really big help too. Just the age difference between all of us has been really good to see and grow from because we’re all at different stages in our careers, and it’s good to see what each other has to say. I think they’ve been leaning on me for some of the qualifying stuff, and I’ve been leaning on them for race stuff, and they’ve been really fast in races. We’re 1-2-3 in points, which is great. I think it’s great that we’re right there as a team. Hopefully we can continue to build and get there to where we can compete with some of the Cup guys and win races.

NBC Sports: How would you grade yourself through the first five races of the year?

Byron: I’d say we’re probably an A or so. I think we’ve had some different situations that haven’t gone great. We’ve had some bad luck. We had a radio issue at Atlanta and then at Vegas we got put four-wide on the last lap. We were going to get a top 10, probably eighth or ninth and got taken back to 14th. I think probably an A or A -. I think we can continue to get better to where we can get our cars better or whatever. We’re getting there.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: What was your first street car?

Byron: First street car was I think a stick shift Chevy Silverado. I was still trying to learn how to shift … It was a six shift Chevy. I drove that for a few years.

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a car, whether it be a street or race car?

Byron: No, I really haven’t. I’m not too into that part of doing things. I think that’s kind of silly. I guess I kind of stick to just driving them. I found that driving whatever race car it is is good, and you never want to have one special one because you might not get to drive that one that week. I think you kind of keep them equal.

NBC Sports: What was your favorite diecast growing up?

Byron: Really either Jimmie (Johnson) or Jeff (Gordon). I had kind of all the Hendrick cars, I know that sounds funny, but I had even the 25 car and the 5 car. It’s kind of neat to have all that. Overall, I collected a bunch of different diecast. I had Carl Edwards and a lot of different guys.

NBC Sports: You’re racing at Bristol in a few weeks. If you were competing in the Cup night race there, what would be your introduction song?

Byron: Oh man. I’d say probably “Radioactive” or something like that. Something upbeat to get me going for the race.

Previous Xfinity Q&A’s

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

NASCAR America: Matt Kenseth unable to realize potential due to team’s mistakes

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Sunday’s pit road mistake — having seven crew members over the wall when only six are allowed — not only knocked Matt Kenseth out of the race, it also knocked him out of advancing in the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

As a result, Kenseth lost out on his bid to earn a second Cup championship in what could potentially be his last season in the Cup series.

And it wasn’t the first time Kenseth has suffered through issues not of his making this season and in prior seasons.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan all gave their thoughts on what happened to Kenseth — and they didn’t hold back, either.

Click on the above video to hear what they had to say about Kenseth’s misfortune and how it could potentially impact his legacy going forward.

 

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s picks for Championship 4

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On Monday’s editions of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his predictions for which of the eight remaining championship-eligible drivers — including Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott — will make it to the Championship 4 round.

In addition to Johnson and Elliott, Junior also makes it known in the above video that he’s also pulling for Ryan Blaney. He may even throw in a surprise to his picks.

Our NASCAR America team of analysts go over Junior’s picks and give their take, as well.

We don’t want to spill the beans of who Junior is picking here, so click on the video above to find out, as well as what our analysts think about his picks.

 

 

 

Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good race tracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

Memorial service to be held Friday for Furniture Row Racing team member Jim Watson

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A memorial service for Furniture Row Racing crew member Jim Watson will be held Friday in Lincolnton, North Carolina, his family announced Monday.

Watson, who served in a number of roles for both the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. and No. 77 of Erik Jones, passed away Saturday night after suffering a heart attack in Kansas City, Kansas, where the teams were preparing for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race.

Watson was 55.

MORE: Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

MORE: Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

The memorial will be from 4-6 p.m. ET Friday at the Warlick Funeral Home, 125 Dave Warlick Drive, in Lincolnton.

Watson’s obituary was included in the announcement of the memorial service:

Watson was born Sept. 27, 1962, in Kenosha, Wis., to Betty Paulus Watson and the late David Harrison Watson. He is survived by his wife, Laurie Ann Watson; a daughter, Brittany May Watson; his mother, Betty L. Watson; brother, Mike Watson; stepchildren, Eric James Conover and fiancé Claudia Rodriguez, and Matthew Sean Conover; Michael Patrick Conover, and wife Michele, and Nicholas Ian Conover; three grandchildren, Patrick Michael Conover, Michael Winston Conover, and Coleton Daniel Conover; nieces, Jennifer Watson and Katie J. Ballou; and many other uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorials be made to hatsalive.org.