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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NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Las Vegas recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the weekend’s racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Steve Letarte will be joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.