Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – To call William Byron’s initiation into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series a baptism by fire wouldn’t be giving enough credit to the fire.
To say the least, the 20-year-old Liberty University sophomore has had a rough debut in his first three races at NASCAR’s highest level, but not for a lack of grit or effort.
Starting the season-opening Daytona 500 in a backup car after an early crash in the first Can-Am Duel qualifying race three days earlier, Byron was part of a nine-car wreck on Lap 60 of the Great American Race. Despite a subsequent spin off Turn 4 on Lap 190, Byron soldiered on to a 23rd-place finish, four laps down to overtime winner Austin Dillon.
A week later at Atlanta, Byron went a lap down to eventual race winner Kevin Harvick before a scheduled competition caution on Lap 30. Only Harvick’s largesse—slowing enough to let Byron pass him before the yellow flag waved—kept Byron on the lead lap.
Byron and crew chief Darian Grubb improved the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet throughout the race, but Byron was no match for Harvick. No one else was either. Byron fought through the afternoon and was running at the finish, two laps down in 18th place.
Last year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series champion had never worked harder for a mid-pack result.
“Yeah, especially with what I fought in the beginning of the race,” Byron acknowledged last Friday before qualifying at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “It was rough. There’s no doubt about it, it was a rough weekend, but we definitely learned a lot from it.
“Just to make it 500 miles and to know what that’s going to be like and to know what I need to do to get to that point was the biggest thing for me. Once I kind of realized where we were as far as how our car handled and things like that, you just kind of reset your goals and just go from there to figure out what you can do to maximize the day.”
The Las Vegas weekend started on a more optimistic note. Byron found speed late in Friday’s opening practice and posted the fifth fastest lap in qualifying trim at 190.282 mph. In time trials later that afternoon, he earned a season-best 17th starting position for the Pennzoil 400.
Sunday’s race was another matter. Byron finished 27th, four laps down to race winner Harvick, who drove off into the desert sunset, leaving just eight other cars on the lead lap.
To be fair, Byron isn’t the only Hendrick Motorsports driver who has struggled this season. The company is working hard to discover the subtleties of the new Camaro ZL1 race car while dealing with a new organizational model that has all four crew chiefs in the same building.
Before the Daytona 500, Byron had never run a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, making his learning curve as steep as it can possibly be. Nevertheless, Byron’s own history offers bright promise. Typically, he starts slowly—and learns fast.
Two races into his first full season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2016, Byron was 25th in points. He went on to win seven times that year and spent 13 consecutive races on top of the standings before a blown engine at Phoenix cost him a chance to compete for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway a week later.
Last year, in his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut season, Byron didn’t win until the 14th race of this season. He went on to collect four victories, including a “revenge” win in the next-to-last race at Phoenix. Byron won the series title with a third-place finish at Homestead.
The message is clear. When the switch goes on for Byron, the performance escalates meteorically. And it does so while Byron stays current with his online courses at Liberty.
“I think that, once it clicks, it’s going to be the same as any other series,” Byron said. “When it clicks, and you know what you need in the car, and you know how to produce that result, it doesn’t matter whether there are 30 good cars or 20 good cars. I think that once it does click for us, and once we know and we show up each week, and we’re very close to how we need to be, it’s going to start to click and rack off those successful finishes.
“But I would say there is a lot of stuff to work on. I mean, there’s the pit road stuff, the green-flag stops, the length of the races and then just learning Darrian and my guys to know what to do. I think we’re going to get there probably quicker than people expect, but there might be some rough patches here and there.”
Then again, perhaps Byron is just getting the rough patches out of the way early, as he has done at every previous level of NASCAR racing.