NASCAR’s Next Generation: William Byron

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It’s the middle of the summer, and William Byron is tired.

The 17-year old is less than two weeks away from starting his senior year of high school, but he has other things to worry about. The biggest being his points lead in his rookie season in the K&N Pro Series East.

“I actually have my first off week (this) weekend,” Byron told NASCAR Talk in a phone interview. “Really, my first off week since April 4. Just this whole stretch. I’ve had summer vacation, but that’s one or two days in town. It’s been tough. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I’m definitely looking forward to that off week. I think it’s going to be well worth it, just to clear my mind and refocus a little bit.”

Byron shared this between practice sessions for the K&N race at Motordrome Speedway in Smithton, Pa., the 11th of 14 races on the season. The race can be seen today at 7 pm ET on NBCSN.

The Charlotte, N.C., native has four wins this season racing for HScott Motorsports with another coming in Super Late Models for JR Motorsports.

Last year, Byron competed in 56 races and earned 24 poles, 11 wins and 37 top-five finishes.

The following Q&A had been edited and condensed.

NT: Do you remember what you were doing when you got the call or message about being a part of NASCAR Next (a program aimed at spotlighting emerging stars in the sport)?

William Byron: I was actually in school. I go to high school. I was in (math) class and my marketing lady, Heather (Kincel), she gave me a call or texted me. I couldn’t answer the phone, but she just told me I was part of the NASCAR Next class and I was super excited. It was something that we were working towards and were hoping that I could be a part of just because the establishment over the past, having young drivers be a part of it that have gone on to be successful. It was a cool thing for me, it definitely was a boost of confidence.

NT: When you tell your non-racing friends that you’re part of something like that, do they appreciate it? Do they get it or do you have to explain some of it to them?

Byron: I’ve gone to the same school (Charlotte Country Day School) really since I was in kindergarten, so I’ve known the kids for a long time. It was funny. When I started racing, it was tough to introduce the idea and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m doing now,’ to help people understand it. I kind of let them figure it out on their own. Once you start getting on TV, the (Greenville-Pickens Speedway) win was on TV on a Tuesday night, I was like ‘Hey, guys, tune in.’ Once that stuff starts happening, people start posting things on Instagram, saying ‘Oh man, I see my friend William on TV’ and that kind of makes it take off. The NASCAR Next program, when I told them about that, I wasn’t sure how they were going to take it, but they were like ‘You’re one of 12 or 13 drivers that’s part of an elite program.’ They thought it was pretty cool.

NT: You’ve had a lot of success in these first few years of racing, combine that with being on TV and people watching that, how do you keep your ego in check? How do keep from getting full of yourself and buying into your own talent and success?

Byron: That’s a good question. I’m always looking to the next week. I’m so hungry for competition all the time. I’ll win a race and it’s like, what am I going to do next week to back it up? I think I’m always looking for more and I think that keeps me humble more than anything. I also understand really well how much effort and work it takes to get a win because I’ve also had races that don’t go so well and I realize why there’s a difference there. I think having those bad races every now and then, I learn a lot from those and I appreciate why we’re in a position to win at some tracks. I think that keeps my ego in check, I guess. I’ve never really had an issue with it because I’m honestly just thrilled to be driving a race car. It’s never really gotten away from me, I feel like.

NT: Most drivers get started early. Do you feel getting started late (age 14), being more emotionally, mentally developed has helped you navigate this success rather than if you started when you were 4 or 5?

Byron: I’ve played other sports when I was younger. I just never had the opportunity to race. I feel like it’s helped me have a clearer mind about racing in general because I come in eager and ready to compete like everybody at my level does. But I can also relate to other things that I do, because I haven’t done this for an extremely long amount of time, so I can relate it to when I played ball. I’m on the swim team at school. There’s a lot of different things I can relate what I’m doing on the racetrack to, especially with the other sports I’ve played in my childhood.

NT: Why not pursue those sports? Why did you think it was going to be racing that you had a future in?

Byron: With other sports, it was always come and go. Football, I played that for three to five years. I really liked that, but it wasn’t the same as racing to me. I always wanted to watch races. I always looked at races and that drew me more than other sports did, overwhelmingly. I always had a connection and I feel like that’s what brought me to racing. I’ve wanted to race my whole life, but I wasn’t given that opportunity so I found other sports to do, but finally when I was given the opportunity to race at a later age, I felt it was the right thing for me and it kind of took off.

NT: How does your sponsorship partnership with Liberty University work with you being a student there as well?

Byron: They sponsor me full-time in racing, so they sponsor everything that I do in racing. So that’s a huge help, it’s tremendous support for our race team and then I also do go to school there (with online classes). They help me go to school there and then obviously on the racing side, they do everything there. I couldn’t do it without them, they’ve been sponsoring me for two years now, they’ll sponsor me next year as well.

NT: How did your Liberty University sponsorship come together?

Byron: I raced on iRacing, which is a computer simulation, before I started real racing about a year and half before. I found it and it intrigued me a lot and that’s kind of how I learned in the beginning to start racing. Obviously, not in a real car, but I felt that it was close. I went to (Liberty University) and explained how I started that way and took it into a real racing career and I said how I could relate that to their online schooling program where kids can get a degree online and take that into the real world and apply that somehow.

NT: In your three years of racing what’s the most scared you’ve ever been in a race car?

Byron: I don’t think I’ve ever really been scared. I’ve had one wreck pretty bad. It was at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the quarter-mile track in a Legend car. I kind of hooked wheels with a guy and went head-on into the wall out of Turn 4, near the start-finish line. I hurt my knee pretty bad. I had never hit the wall dead-on like that. I wasn’t aware of the movement. While I was heading toward the wall I was like ‘I’m not sure how this is going to feel.’ Then when I got to the wall, it was a lot more severe than I thought it was going to be. I think that was the worst one, but I wasn’t scared though. The next week I came back, I was a little bit disoriented going by that spot. The first practice I had to regain my composure I guess, but it was fine after that.

NT: What was the first track you raced on?

Byron: I raced at the Rockingham quarter-mile track. It was called ‘Little Rock’ and it was a quarter-mile track in the back of the big Rockingham Speedway.

NT: What do you remember about that first time you actually got to step on a pedal and just floor it?

Byron: It had a lot more behind than I thought it was going to. I had never driven like a street car or anything. It was different. It was really raw to me. Everything was brand new. It was a lot to take in, especially that first race. there was a lot happening and that was fun. I qualified second and actually finished fourth in my first race. There were about 15 or 16 cars and that was pretty cool. Some of the kids I race against now were in that race, so it’s kind of funny that it started that way.

Previous NASCAR Next Q&A’s:

 

Kyle Busch dominates to Truck win at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Busch extended his NASCAR Truck Series victory record to 57 in his hometown Friday night, leading 108 of 134 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion swept both stages and finished 5.958 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter. Busch has won seven straight races in the series, including all five he entered last season.

Austin Hill was third, followed by defending series champion Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. Grrant Enfinger, who opened the season with an overtime victory at Daytona, did not finish after an accident with 43 laps to go.

Christian Eckes was right behind Busch in the opening two stages, but he finished 23rd after an early final-stage wreck.

Results

Driver standings

Jimmie Johnson tops final Cup practice at Las Vegas

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Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s second and final NASCAR Cup practice of the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The seven-time Cup champion hasn’t won a race since 2017, but showed plenty of speed, pacing the 38 cars that took to the 1.5-mile track, clocking a best speed of 179.432 mph.

Johnson and his Chevrolet were followed by five Fords.

Clint Bowyer, who was second-fastest in the first practice earlier in the day, was once again second-fast in the final session at 179.271 mph.

Aric Almirola, who was fastest in the first practice, was third-fastest in the final session at 179.170 mph.

Rounding out the top-5 were Kevin Harvick (179.015 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (178.814 mph).

Sixth through 10th were Ross Chastain (178.660 mph), who will be filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, followed by Kyle Larson (178.424), Ryan Blaney (178.359), John Hunter Nemechek (178.259) and Alex Bowman (178.089).

Final Cup practice results

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Next goals for Daytona winner Denny Hamlin: double-digit wins, Cup crown

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There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were to just go home relatively unscathed.

Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.

But after a breakthrough 4th-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished 2nd (2014), 4th (2015), 1st (2016), 17th (2017), 3rd (2018), 1st (2019) and 1st again this past Monday.

Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-5 finishes in the last nine season openers.

Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last lap crash on the front stretch heading toward the checkered flag.

“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.

“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.

“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).

“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”

Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.

“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.

“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the Final Four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.

“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”

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Johnny Sauter on pole for tonight’s Truck race in Las Vegas

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Johnny Sauter will start from the pole in tonight’s Strat 200 Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sauter earned the eighth career pole of his Truck Series career – and first since 2018 – by topping the other 34 drivers that made qualifying attempts with a speed of 177.836 mph.

Sheldon Creed (177.643 mph) will start alongside Sauter on the front row for tonight’s race.

The rest of the top 10 qualifiers were Kyle Busch (177.282 mph), making his first Truck Series start of the season, followed by Christian Eckes (177.189 mph), Ty Majeski (177.189), Austin Hill (176.788 mph), Tyler Ankrum (176.275), Raphael Lessard (176.056), Grant Enfinger (176.010) and Brett Moffitt (175.890).

Tonight’s race starts shortly after 9 p.m. ET (FS1, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Trucks qualifying results

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