Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – William Byron winning his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole position Thursday- and first at his hometown Charlotte Motor Speedway – is more than a “local kid does good” story.
Byron’s accomplishment may well signal a more significant career milestone. His sophomore season at the Cup level and first working alongside Hendrick Motorsports’ seven-time series champion crew chief Chad Knaus has produced reason for optimism beyond the natural ability Bryon has shown. Sometimes the 21-year old’s rapid rise to NASCAR’s big leagues and his record of over-achievement gets overlooked and underestimated.
At the age of 18, he won seven races in the 23-race NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and finished fifth in the championship. At 19, he won four races en route to the 2017 season’s NASCAR Xfinity Series championship.
Winning the pole position in one of the season’s most celebrated races – Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – is a high profile statement that Byron is ready to take things to the next level. It’s a not-too-subtle reminder that this second-year driver is the real thing – excelling on the race track while simultaneously working toward a college degree at Liberty University, which is sponsoring his pole-winning car this weekend.
His work Thursday at Charlotte makes him the youngest to ever win the pole for this historic race – but even the unfailingly polite and soft-spoken Byron conceded he flinches a bit at that specific recognition.
“I don’t really like having the “youngest” term attached to me because I’ve been the young guy and I just want to be a part of the conversation as a normal person, no matter what age I am,” said Byron, who drives the Hendrick Motorsports’ famous No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, once steered by NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.
“So, I really don’t look at myself as younger than other guys, just as what I’m doing and how I’m doing it compared to them or everybody out there. Yeah, it’s cool. But I really just look at myself as a race car driver.”
A talented one at that.
His 2018 rookie Monster Energy Series season marked the first time Byron hadn’t won a NASCAR-sanctioned race in three years. He had four top-10s including a best of sixth place at Pocono.
But a year under his belt in the big leagues and a shift in crew chiefs has now paired Byron with Chad Knaus, who previously led Jimmie Johnson to seven series titles. And 12 races into their union, Byron has won two pole positions – also including the season-opening Daytona 500 – and has started from the front row three other times with outside pole positions at Texas, Bristol and Dover.
He’s already earned half as many top-10 finishes (sixth at Texas and eighth at Dover) as he did in the full 36-race 2018 rookie season. He’s led laps in six races this year – including a season best 44 laps in the Daytona 500. And his 92 laps out front through 12 races in 2019 is already more than all of 2018 (61 laps).
“Obviously to win the pole here is a good first step to the weekend,” Byron said. “But it means a lot just being here and sitting in this room before racing here when you think what it’s like to go around the big track, let alone win something at it.
“So, it’s been a good couple weeks. Hopefully it just continues and we can keep that momentum going, which is definitely on our side. I’m excited for it and that number one pit stall will pay huge dividends later in the race, for sure.”