Round one:Todd Gilliland topped the chart with a speed of 95.213 mph. He will have to drop to the back to start the race because of an engine change, so he did not attempt to post a time in the second round.
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:
The 17-year-olds dueled the final two laps with Burton taking the lead before taking the white flag. Gilliland applied pressure and got back by him to win. Cole Rouse nipped Burton for second. The New Smyrna 175 will air at 6 p.m. ET on Feb. 27 on NBCSN.
Gilliland will compete for rookie of the year honors in the Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports this season. Burton will be at teammate at KBM and is scheduled to run nine Truck races this season.
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.
Being a teenager in the Burton family is not what it once was.
For Jeff Burton, the age of 16 included the end of his go-kart career. Still in school, he played soccer and basketball and went to parties on the weekends in his hometown of South Boston, Virginia.
He also dated his future wife, Kim, a junior varsity cheerleader who spent time in gymnastics and performing in dance recitals.
“We were allowed to just be regular kids,” she says.
For Harrison Burton, the highlight of his mid-teens was becoming the youngest NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion, less than two weeks before his 17th birthday on Oct. 9.
He earned the title Sept. 29 when he won the season finale at Dover International Speedway and exited the race with an eight-point advantage over season-long rival Todd Gilliland.
It capped a year where the MDM Motorsports driver scored five wins, including four in the first eight races. He also made six starts in the Camping World Truck Series with a best finish of fourth at Martinsville Speedway a month after he clinched the K&N title.
Not bad for someone who committed to the family business at the age of 9 after four years of racing quarter midgets.
“I think I was pretty old, like relatively,” Harrison Burton says.
“You would race and then go play football afterward … tackle a guy so hard that he would wreck you. That was kind of the extent of that. It was a bunch of friends and we’d travel around and race.”
Then USAC established a national quarter midget series, one that would send 10-year-olds and their parents as far west as Phoenix.
Harrison wanted in.
At the time his father’s Cup career was winding down, but it still kept Jeff Burton from attending most of his son’s races. Sundays after races and Tuesdays were dedicated to working on Harrison’s cars.
“He came to us and he had a proposal,” says Jeff Burton, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “We both immediately said, ‘No, there’s just no way that we can do it.’ We were explaining to him, I’m racing. This means we’re going to be separated as a family.
“So his reply to that was, ‘I don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt our family. So we just won’t do it.’
“I don’t know if he’s a good salesman or what he is. But now how do you say no to a kid that has that perspective? Essentially (Kim) had to make the decision because I couldn’t do it.
“Can she do it? Can she manage it? Plus a daughter. Can she manage this?”
For two years, Kim Burton shepherded her son’s young racing career and her daughter’s horse riding career while also attending her husband’s Cup races, typically all in a three-day span.
It was this period, in which he competed in roughly 300 races (including heat races), that Harrison thought back to when he arrived in Dover’s Victory Lane.
“I just thought about all the races, all the weird areas I’ve been around the country,” he says. “My mom in a motor home.”
“Not so great hotels,” Kim quickly adds.
It was much like those days in the early 90s, when she and Jeff went from track to track as he worked to establish his name in the Xfinity Series at the same time she worked as a teacher.
“It was just, ‘Are we going to race each year?’” Kim recalls. “That first year, it was us in a van, basically. We drove around the country all night long, trying to eke out, figuring out how to make everything work. He had a crew of a few guys that were his late model guys. It was hard. It wasn’t glamorous. Riding in a van with five stinkin’ men, all night long. It was like, ‘What am I doing?’
She was unknowingly preparing herself for her son’s own journey into NASCAR history.
‘This feels really slow’
It was in Harrison’s second year in the national quarter midget series that his dad saw “it.”
That’s when “the magic happened,” Jeff said.
Jeff saw the drive and driver intuition that would serve his son well as he tried to move up the driving ranks.
“It got to the point where we could show up and he could look at the race track at 10 years old and understood what he needed to do and where he needed to run,” Jeff says.
A race day would see Harrison at the track until 10 p.m. A test day would have him sitting in the car non-stop for four to five hours.
“Part of that is because I’m insane,” Jeff says. “But the other part of it is because he needed to … If you’re going to do this, what are you willing to give up? … He has our support as long as he has the willingness and desire to put the effort, time and energy into it. If someone’s going to outwork him, he doesn’t deserve it.
“Children don’t do this. Men do this. Grown men, women. When you get in that car you can’t be a child. When you get out of it, you can be, but when you get in it, you can’t be.
“He never balked at it. He never complained about it.”
Harrison also didn’t balk when, at the age of 11, he took part in his first Limited Late Model test at Southern National Motorsports Park in Lucama, North Carolina.
With crew members from their quarter midget team helping and then-Richard Childress Racing engineer Matt McCall (now Jamie McMurray’s crew chief) supervising, Harrison used a step stool to climb into the vehicle and took to the track.
Upon returning to the pits Harrison told his father, “this feels really slow.”
This from a kid whose only racing experience was on tracks small enough to complete a lap in under five seconds.
“Driving a world formula quarter midget is out of control,” Jeff says. “It’s a grossly overpowered, under-gripped race car on a tiny track with 11 cars.”
Within four years, Harrison was racing at Dover, Bristol and other short tracks his father didn’t set foot on until his early 20s.
“Part of me says that’s awesome,” Jeff says. “The other part of me says, ‘Damn, that’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody.’”
The pressure didn’t slow his son down. In April, 16-year-old Harrison started from the pole in the K&N East race at Bristol, led 68 of 70 laps and won his first NASCAR race.
Harrison Burton had to make sacrifices to become a NASCAR champion. That included giving up playing lacrosse at school.
“When it was winding down and I had to cut lacrosse, (his father) was like, ‘You know, you can do whatever you want. You don’t have to do this because it’s what I did,” Harrison said. “Every time it’s been hands down, I want to race, I want to race, I want to race, I want to race. He’s asked me that more than you would think.”
But Harrison adds there’s “nothing I regret giving up because I knew it was for racing.”
This season coincided with the younger Burton’s junior year, which took a hit as his focus narrowed on battling Gilliland for the K&N East title. He missed an entire week of school at one point.
The biggest casualty was biology.
“It’s been harder than normal,” he says. “That led to results like you’d about imagine in school. I’m kind of making up for that now, and I feel like I’m getting my grades back up. It’s a hard balance for sure. It’s something you feel so focused on racing and you spend a lot of time preparing for races and then you go and you feel like there’s hardly enough time for school, and it’s hard to focus on school when all you want to do is race.”
Despite the split attention, the Burton household is now home to its first NASCAR champion.
Being 17 and with NASCAR’s age limits on competing on large tracks, going full-time in Trucks isn’t a possibility yet. He’ll have at least one more year of dividing his time between school and racing.
“My wish list is to run as many races as possible and learn as much as I can,” Harrison said after his fourth-place finish at Martinsville in the Truck Series. “I think I have a long way to go if I want to race every Sunday, so I’ve got to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can ‘cause I used to be a 14-year-old kid with a long, a long time to go before I even had to think about that stuff and had a long time to learn, but now the time’s coming.”
For now he’s still a teenager, for better or worse.
Before he left Dover for the trip back to North Carolina, he made a parting remark to his dad that reminds you some things about being a teenager don’t change.