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.

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John Ray, who drove patriotic big rig at Talladega, dies at 82

Photo courtesy Talladega Superspeedway
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One of Talladega Superspeedway’s most endearing and popular figures has passed away.

John “Johnny” Ray, whose diesel big rig carrying an American flag around the 2.66-mile track has been a fixture during the playing of the National Anthem at NASCAR Cup races for the past two decades, has died at the age of 82, the track announced Monday.

Ray began the tradition behind the wheel of his gold, brown and chrome-colored Peterbilt semi-tractor in 2001, with an oversized American flag flowing in the breeze behind the tractor.

The procession quickly became a significant fan favorite, eliciting loud cheers and applause from fans in the stands each time it passed by on the track’s front stretch.

“We just had the 9/11 attacks and Dale (Earnhardt) had also passed away earlier that year,” Ray, who lived down the street from the track in Eastaboga, Alabama, said in an interview three years ago. “I had a crazy idea to run my rig out on the track with an American flag attached to the back. It started off as a tribute to the country and to Dale.

“I never thought it would become the heart-felt moment that it has over the past some-odd years, but I’m glad it has become a tradition that means so much to the fans and the Talladega family. It represents such a sense of pride that we all share together as a nation and as a community. It is my honor and privilege to do it.”

Ray, who started his own trucking company in the early 1970s, and also had a brief NASCAR racing career of his own, ceded driving duties of the big rig several years ago to his late friend, Roger Haynes, and then last year to son Johnny Ray, to continue the tradition.

“National Anthems at Talladega Superspeedway are the most iconic, and it’s because of our great friend John Ray,” Speedway President Brian Crichton said in a media release. “What he brought to our fans can’t be duplicated.

“He was an incredible, passionate man who supported the track and all of motorsports with everything he had. His spirit will live here forever. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ray family.”

Funeral arrangements for John Ray are pending, according to the track.

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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

Brendan Gaughan to run 4 final Cup races in 2020, including Daytona 500

Photo: Beard Motorsports' Twitter account
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Brendan Gaughan will kick off his 23rd and final season of NASCAR racing in the 62nd Daytona 500 for Beard Motorsports.

Gaughan – who is using the hashtag #NotGaughanYet to symbolize his final season — will drive the No. 62 Chevrolet at Daytona. If he qualifies, it will be his fifth time in the 500 field, with his best finish coming in 2017 when he finished 11th.

The 44-year-old Gaughan is slated to drive four races this season in NASCAR Cup for Beard Motorsports. In addition to the Daytona 500, he’ll also race April 26 at Talladega Superspeedway, August 29 back at Daytona and will make the final start of his racing career on October 4 back at Talladega.

The Las Vegas native has made 12 previous starts for Beard Motorsports, all at either Daytona and Talladega.

“I love racing, and competing with Beard Motorsports these last few years have made for some of my most enjoyable moments in NASCAR,” Gaughan said in a media release. “We do a lot with a little, so when we run up front and lead laps, it’s very satisfying because you know all the work that went into it.”

Last April, Gaughan led five laps at Talladega and gave Beard Motorsports its second top-10 finish in the Cup Series, finishing eighth. Gaughan also finished seventh at Daytona for Beard Motorsports in July 2017.

“I wouldn’t want my last races as a NASCAR driver to be with any other team,” Gaughan said. “(Team owner) Mark Beard Sr., and his entire family are passionate about racing, and NASCAR in particular. We’re all competitive and want to perform, but we’re going to have fun doing it. That’s how we all got started in the sport – because it was fun. And as I wrap up my career, I’m going to make sure it stays fun.”

Gaughan has made 62 prior starts in the Cup Series dating back to his rookie season in 2004, when he earned his best career finish in the series (fourth at Talladega).

He also has made 219 starts in the Xfinity Series with two wins, and 217 starts in the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series with eight wins.

Gaughan’s effort at Daytona will be in a chassis built by Richard Childress Racing and powered by a motor from ECR Engines. He’ll be sponsored by Beard Oil Distributing, South Point Hotel & Casino and City Lights Shine whiskey moonshine.

He begins his quest to qualify for the 40-car field with Daytona 500 qualifying on February 9. His lap will determine his starting spot in the Feb. 13 Duel – twin 150-mile heat races that set the rest of the field for the Great American Race.

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UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.