Is a future Daytona 500 winner competing in a sim race today having yet to drive a real race car?
For as far-fetched as it might seem, it was only five years ago that William Byron — his skills honed online in iRacing events — started driving a Legends car.
Although many of his competitors began racing by the time they were 7 years old (Byron was 15), Byron already has an Xfinity championship and won rookie of the year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series in each of the past three seasons.
Now the 20-year-old drives the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Some suggest Byron will win a Cup race this year as a rookie.
Byron’s rise leads to the question: Is he the exception or the start of a trend as simulation racing and eSports become more popular to a younger generation?
If Byron succeeds, the search will be on to find someone like him. While many children start racing in karting, Banderlos or quarter midgets, many can’t because their families do not have the means or expertise to compete.
Byron didn’t come from a racing family, so he raced on a computer instead of track as a child.
“iRacing was my chance to really see if I had any ability to drive a car,’’ Byron told NBC Sports. “I think from that standpoint it’s a great starter for understanding if you do have some ability and seeing if that can translate.’’
While he admits not everything transferred from the computer to a car, the hours spent racing online helped.
“The biggest thing was learning the restarts and learning being side by side, setting up passes – the technical things that you figure out in a race car, I could figure out on the sim and put that in the race car,’’ Byron said. “Driving on the track by myself, that was natural. But the race craft from iRacing was something that I think helped me get farther ahead quicker.”
In the search for the next great driver, at what point does it make sense for teams or manufacturers to create an iRacing league for specific age groups to see who might have potential similar to Byron and put them in a car to see if their skills carry over?
“That is something that is of interest and something we’ve spent some time on,’’ Jack Irving, director of team and support services for Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely non-traditional. I think that is evolving, the better the physics are, the better that iRacing becomes and even the home units.
“By no means do we discount iRacing. I think it’s as important as any other form of working out or going to the gym. Obviously, racing is racing, so being put against a bunch of kids on the track, competing against each other, tells you a lot and the ups and downs of it are real. You can’t reset a race track. If you go hit a wall, you’ve got to deal with the feelings of that after.
“The psychological aspect of racing, that’s one thing I think from William’s perspective is he was extremely special from the way his makeup was and how he approaches races and how he approaches competing. If William had a tough race, it was the same William the day after, he was going to build on it and get better.’’
Toyota Racing Development already has created a driver pipeline that has sent Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez to Cup rides at Joe Gibbs Racing and watched as Byron — he drove in the Truck series for Kyle Busch Motorsports — moved to Chevrolet. Toyota has Christopher Bell in the Xfinity Series, Todd Gilliland and Myatt Snider in the Truck Series and Hallie Deegan in the K&N Pro Series West, among others.
For every Jones, Bell or Gilliland, others could be missed because they didn’t have the opportunity to begin racing at an early age.
Before Toyota can do something like that, Irving notes his group needs to understand what to measure and what translates from computers to the track.
“Can we expand it and do more with what we have? Yes,’’ Irving said of its analytics study. “Just getting data has been relatively new to the sport over the last few years. So even kind of dissecting data and how you would traditionally go after athletes at every level, we’re just starting to get over that more and more and we’re continuing to get better at that in the last few years.
“Figuring out the metrics that you’re just rating real racers has been difficult. We’ve spent a fair amount of time the last two years doing that, three years doing that, and evaluating the people that are out there that are currently racing. I think, yes, to touch further backgrounds and to find in deeper regions, (online simulation games) is definitely a tool that can be what the future is.’’
2. Daytona Speedweeks Crash Report
Ninety-five vehicles were involved in accidents in Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck races at Daytona, based on race reports and replays.
That is tied for the second-highest total of vehicles involved in incidents during Daytona Speedweeks since 2013. Those in incidents range from cars destroyed to any that were slightly involved.
The 28 Cup cars involved in accidents in the Daytona 500 was down from last year when 35 cars were listed in incidents. But this year’s total was the second-highest for the Daytona 500 since 2012.
The 63 cars involved in incidents in the Daytona 500 the past two years rank as the highest two-year total in the last 10 Daytona 500s.
Here is how many Cup cars were involved in accidents in the Daytona 500 in recent years:
Grant Enfinger posted the fastest lap in the first of three Camping World Truck Series practices Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.
Enfinger is with ThorSport Racing, which switched from Toyota to Ford in the offseason. Enfinger topped the speed chart with a lap of 192.033 mph. He was followed by Johnny Sauter (191.767 mph), Matt Crafton (191.657), Bryan Dauzat (191.440) and John Hunter Nemechek (190.807).
The only incident came when Brett Moffitt spun on the apron at the beginning of the session. He did not hit anything and returned to the track later in the session.
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – It’s been a long time since Jamie McMurray has stepped down to the Xfinity Series to terrorize NASCAR’s lower ranks.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has eight Xfinity wins, last competed in the series in 2013 in the fall Richmond race with JR Motorsports. His last multi-race Xfinity season was 2011 when he made six starts.
But he’ll make at least three starts in the No. 42 DC Solar Chevrolet this season.
So what’s kept the 41-year-old driver away for so long?
He and teammate Kyle Larson have similar tastes in tracks.
“I was going to do a couple the last few years. It just didn’t work out,” McMurray said this week during the NASCAR Media Tour. “I didn’t push real hard for it. The thing is, when you are a Cup driver; like with Kyle and I, you both want to kind of do the same ones. Like everybody wants to do Watkins Glen because we only go there once a year and it’s a road course and it’s a little more fun. And then there are a few tracks that nobody wants to do. And so, I was like, well, I don’t want to do those. I just don’t want to be in for those races. So, there were a few things that led to that. But DC Solar wanted to do some Xfinity races and I wanted to and they picked some good tracks.”
McMurray’s slate so far includes the DC Solar 200 at Phoenix on March 10, the May 26 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the July 6 race at Daytona International Speedway.
McMurray will share the ride with Larson (four races with DC Solar) and rookie John Hunter Nemechek.
John Hunter Nemechek, the son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek, will join Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018 to compete part-time in the Xfinity Series, the team announced Tuesday.
At 20-year-old driver will pilot the No. 42 Chevrolet in multiple races, sharing the ride with Kyle Larson. Fire Alarm Services, which sponsored Nemechek in the Truck Series, will move up to Xfinity with him.
The No. 42 has significant meaning to the Nemechek family. Joe Nemechek earned his first of four Cup wins driving the No. 42 for Felix Sabates in 1999 at New Hampshire. He drove for Sabates from 1997-99.
Sabates is a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing.
John Hunter Nemechek spent the last two years full-time in the Camping World Truck Series driving the No. 8 Chevrolet for his family-owned team, NEMCO Motorsports. He has 76 starts in the series since 2013 and five wins, two coming in each of the last two seasons.
“I couldn’t be more excited to join Chip Ganassi Racing,” Nemechek said in a press release. “I feel like their cars and organization were the talk of the garage in 2017 and I hope to play a part in continuing their run of success in 2018 and beyond. Also, Fire Alarm Services has been a supporter of my career since 2016 at our family-owned team, and I am looking forward to continuing that partnership at Chip Ganassi Racing. I am extremely grateful to Shannon and Connie Smith, owners of Fire Alarm Services, Inc. I also want to thank my father for all that he has done to help grow my passion for racing.”
Nemechek will work with veteran crew chief Mike Shiplett, who has led the No. 42 team for the last four seasons.
The No. 42 will be the only full-time entry for Ganassi in the Xfinity Series in 2018. It fielded the No. 48 for Brennan Poole the last two seasons. No announcements have been made about Poole’s future.
“We are happy to have John Hunter join our organization and also announce the relationship with Fire Alarm Services,” Chip Ganassi said in a press release. “We had a very successful 2017 with our Xfinity program and look to improve upon that. We feel that John Hunter has the talent to be a future star in the sport and can’t wait to get him behind the wheel.”