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:
Todd Gilliland will get a helping hand driving Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 4 Toyota this season before he turns 18 on May 15.
The two-time K&N Pro Series West champion will miss four of the first six races to start the year because of NASCAR’s rule that drivers under 18 years old are restricted to tracks 1.25 miles or less in length or road courses.
Gilliland will miss the season-opener at Daytona (Feb. 16), Atlanta (Feb. 24), Las Vegas (March 2) and Kansas (May 11).
After starts at Martinsville (March 24) and Dover (May 4) to begin his Rookie of the Year campaign, his first race on a 1.5-mile track will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18.
In a video released by the team on Twitter, it announced that Gilliland’s dad, David Gilliland, will open the season at Daytona.
The former Cup driver will make his first NASCAR start since 2016 in the NextEra Energy Resources 250.
A veteran of 398 national NASCAR races, David Gilliland’s last Truck Series start was in 2015. He has 10 Truck starts. One of those was at a restrictor-plate track (Daytona, 2015).
That’s not the only race the elder Gilliland will try to be part of that weekend.
He will attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Ricky Benton Racing, which has fielded the No. 92 in the Truck Series since 2010.
Gilliland will attempt to qualify the No. 92 Black’s Tire and Auto Service/Carquest Auto Parts Ford into the “Great American Race.” If he’s successful, it will mark the Cup debut for the team.
Gilliland made seven starts for the team in 2015.
“After talking with our partners, we felt the time was right to make a move into the Cup Series,” team owner Ricky Benton said in a press release. “Getting David back on board was also key. Having a veteran driver with his experience and success on restrictor-plate tracks – with whom (crew chief Mike) Hester has familiarity – gives us a leg up as we try to make the race.”
Gilliland has made 16 starts at Daytona in the Cup Series, including seven in the Daytona 500. His best finish was third in the 2011 Daytona 500.
UPDATE: KBM has also announced its crew chief lineup for this season.
Ryan Fugle will be paired with Noah Gragson on the No. 18 truck.
Mike Hillman Jr. will work with Harrison Burton, Busch and other drivers on the No. 51 truck.
Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Friday that Noah Gragson will return to drive the No. 18 Toyota Tundra in the Camping World Truck Series with primary sponsorship from Safelite AutoGlass for all 23 races. The team also announced that the company will be an associate sponsor on Harrison Burton‘s No. 51 Truck in his nine races with the team.
Gragson finished 10th in points last season, scoring one win and three poles as a rookie. The 19-year-old earned his first series win in October at Martinsville Speedway.
“This year is already off to a great start knowing that I’ll be back at Kyle Busch Motorsports to compete for a Truck Series championship in 2018 with Safelite as the primary sponsor on my No. 18 Tundra,” Gragson said in a release from the team. “Having Kyle as a mentor and the technology that Toyota and TRD have in place for young drivers allowed me to learn a lot in my first full-time season in trucks, and I know that I’m better prepared to start 2018 off strong. I was able to get my first taste of victory late last year and it was special. This year I plan on climbing more fences and celebrating more wins with everyone at Safelite.”
Kyle Busch will run in the Camping World Truck Series races at Atlanta (Feb. 24), Las Vegas (March 2), Kansas (May 11), Charlotte (May 18) and Pocono (July 28), Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Thursday. Textron Aviation will sponsor Busch.
He’ll run at Atlanta and Kansas in the No. 4 Truck and the other three races in the No. 51.
NASCAR rules limit drivers with more than five years Cup experience to a maximum five Truck races this season (down from seven last year).
Busch enters the season second on the Truck career victory list with 49. Ron Hornaday Jr., who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 19, is the series’ all-time leader with 51 victories.
Busch won three of his seven series starts last year. He has finished first or second in 73 of his 140 career Truck starts (52.1 percent)