Xfinity playoffs loom for William Byron, but Cup future is secure no matter what

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William Byron “didn’t expect” any of this.

The 19-year-old didn’t expect to be promoted to the NASCAR Cup Series by Hendrick Motorsports next year after just one season in the Xfinity Series.

He was also “pretty surprised” by the phone call he received from Rick Hendrick last Thursday as he prepared to race at Road America.

Hendrick wanted to know how he felt about taking over the No. 24 in 2018 as Chase Elliott transitioned to his family’s famous No. 9.

“I was kind of expecting to be whatever number I was going to be,” Byron told NBC Sports just a few hours before Hendrick announced Liberty University would sponsor Byron and his team for 12 races in 2018 and 2019. “It was definitely a surprise, but a good one.”

Other than telling his parents, Byron had to keep the news a secret  until it was officially announced.

Before a press release announced the news just after 7:30 p.m. ET, Byron and Elliott shook their heads at their situation.

“I knew it was kind of funny nobody had any idea about it and Chase and I were kind of joking about that yesterday right before it came out,” Byron said. “We were kind of laughing about how nobody was going to expect this one. It’s pretty neat.”

Now the formalities over what Byron is doing next year are over. The JR Motorsports driver still has 10 races, seven of them in the playoffs, before he can devote much attention his future.

With three wins (Iowa I, Daytona II and Indianapolis) the rookie doesn’t have to worry about being locked into the playoffs.

All he has to worry about is getting through Saturday’s race at Darlington Raceway as smoothly as possible and then races at Richmond and Chicagoland Speedway before the playoffs begin in Kentucky.

“Just an opportunity to get prepared the best we can for this last stretch of races and do the best we can,” Byron said. “We want to win this championship really bad. We’ve got a job to do. We’re ready for it and we’ve been putting a lot into it. Had a couple of good test sessions the last few weeks to prepare for the playoffs in an Xfinity car and hopefully everyone on our 9 team can have a really good weekend here at Darlington.”

But Darlington isn’t a track Byron visited in his one full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. However, he had a two-day test there in May, his experience on iRacing and the advice of the many drivers at Hendrick and JRM to lean on when it comes to tackling the track “Too Tough to Tame.”

With its patented “Darlington stripe,” Byron got pretty pointed advice from his team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

” ‘Hey, you’re gonna hit the wall at some point,” Byron recounted Earnhardt telling him. ” ‘You might as well expect it, not be worried about it and be able to shake it off and go on to the next lap and really find that rhythm to be good around there.’ ”

Surprisingly, it took awhile for Byron’s No. 9 Chevrolet to get its first stripe during his May test at Darlington.

“It actually took until the second day,” he said. “During testing you’re kind of more precise and you have more time to figure things out. It’s easier to stay off the wall. When we get back there, when the track is rubbered up and it’s a little slicker it’s going be tough to stay off the wall. But we’ll try our best.”

Once the playoffs arrive, Byron will tap into the thoughts and feelings he’s kept “reserved” since last November. In the last race of the second round of the Truck playoffs, Byron was leading at Phoenix Raceway with 12 laps to go when his engine gave out.

Combined with an eighth-place finish at Martinsville and a sixth at Texas, the DNF kept the six-time winner from advancing to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While Byron won the race, he had to watch Johnny Sauter celebrate winning the title.

“It’s kind of showed me what it’s like to lose a championship,” Byron said. “It was out of our control. It wasn’t a mistake, it wasn’t lack of performance. We were leading the race and we just had an engine blow up. I think going into it it’s just added motivation for knowing what it’s like to lose one and knowing how much it means. It’s going to be a chip on my shoulder and I’ll use that for an edge.

“I’ve kind of reserved that for something to use for a little motivation until the end of this year. Hopefully that is able to apply for us. Who knows, maybe we can win Phoenix or something and kind of get redemption.”

Not that he needs it.

After two years of full-time competition in NASCAR, just over five years after he was asking for iRacing advice on YouTube, Byron is secure in a future he “would never have imagined.”