William Byron’s rookie mindset: Race like you’re on borrowed time

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — In 2018, William Byron will be racing like his career is about to end.

“You just never know how long you’re going to race,” Byron told NBC Sports. “I’m going to move up to the Cup Series like it’s my last year.”

That’s the mindset the newly 20-year-old driver will have in his rookie season in the Cup Series.

“I think you gain that (mindset through) advice,” Byron said Thursday during an event for NASCAR’s national touring series champions. “Max Papis had helped me a lot in understanding the role and the person you need to be. Just how special of an opportunity this is.”

If that’s the mentality Byron’s had the last two years in NASCAR, it’s worked.

Byron is weeks removed from winning the Xfinity Series title and five years removed from the start of his career on the iRacing simulator.

In 73 days, he’ll start the biggest chapter of his career driving the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

The fact he’s a NASCAR champion has “not really” set in for Byron. It might finally do so when he gives his champion’s speech Saturday night at the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series Awards banquet in Charlotte.

With all that going on, Byron doesn’t feel like he’s two decades old.

“I still feel really young,” Byron said. “Everything’s going to happen really fast and I feel like I’ve matured a lot this year.”

How do you measure your own maturity when you’re a college student who spends his weekends at race tracks going 180 mph as a living?

“I don’t know,” Byron admits. “I feel like compared to my peers, I obviously feel quite a bit ahead of the guys my age. But in racing, I feel really young. It’s a little bit of both. I’m surrounded by two different environments, when I’m at home it’s a lot different than when I’m racing the guys on the road. I feel like I’ve got a while, but I think I’m in the right direction and hopefully I can run hard with the Cup guys and the guys I used to watch on TV.”

Part of getting comfortable in the mindset of being a Cup driver is simply being comfortable in his car.

“I think really it involves the pouring the seat (getting his seat fitted) and everything for next year and getting all that stuff aligned,” Byron said. “Those races are really long, so you got to make sure all that stuff is really comfortable. Make sure you’re really ready for that. That’s what we’ve been working on mostly. As well as getting to know my crew chief.”

A winner of 11 NASCAR races in the last two years, Byron has been paired with Darian Grubb as his crew chief.

Grubb has 23 Cup wins as a crew chief and won the 2011 championship with Tony Stewart. But since his start as a full-time crew chief in 2007, this will be his first time working with a rookie driver.

“I think for us, it’ll be key just to start out and be consistent at the beginning of the year and kind of progress and compete for wins as the year goes,” Byron said. “I feel like if we can start out consistent, which I know Darian’s really used to having consistency, it’s going to be successful and hopefully we keep progressing each race.”

When it comes to his transition from JR Motorsports to Hendrick Motorsports, Byron is still getting used to his new home.

“I’m starting to figure out my way around the place,” Byron said. “Hopefully (I’ll) be able to know where I need to go to get all the information I need.”

He’ll have plenty of time to figure it out, even though he’ll be racing like he’s running out of it.