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Lilly Diabetes 250 Winner Byron Stays on Rocket Ride into Cup Series in 2018

Five years ago, 14-year-old William Byron’s only exposure to stock car racing was watching NASCAR races on TV, attending races as a fan and avid competition in the computer racing simulation, iRacing.

Fast-forward to August 2017, and 19-year-old Byron is arguably the hottest young driving prospect in NASCAR. Byron, from Charlotte, North Carolina, is second in the NASCAR XFINITY Series standings, has scored three victories as a rookie and was named this week as the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet next season for powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

What a wild ride.

“I think definitely it’s the top level of racing here and really everything that I’ve watched as a kid,” Byron said. “I’m starting to race against those guys, so for me it’s definitely going to be intense and you’re going to have to match that intensity, but I feel like I’ve got great people around me and I’ve got really a golden opportunity here at Hendrick Motorsports. It’s something as a kid I’ve grown up aspiring to do this.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be challenging at times, but I know that and I’m prepared for that, so I just look forward to racing those guys and learning from them.”

The rocket ride to the top started for Byron as an 8-year-old when he begged his father to take him to a race in 2006 at Martinsville Speedway. He then registered for iRacing, competing in countless races and earning many victories in the detailed online simulation.

Byron’s father realized his son’s passion and talent for stock car racing were more than the ephemeral whimsy of a pre-teen. William showed uncommon desire to race and had an unquenched thirst for every bit of racing knowledge he could absorb.

So Byron and his father investigated the possibility of buying a Legends car in late 2012. That purchase was made, and William began racing in the U.S. Legend Young Lion Division in 2013, at age 15. That’s a very late start in racing these days, as many pro drivers started in karting before they could write their names in cursive.

But Byron wasted no time translating his skill in virtual racing to real asphalt. He posted 59 top-five and 64 top-10 finishes in 69 Legend Car starts all over the United States in 2013, winning the Young Lions National Championship. He also won the Thursday Thunder Young Lions Championship at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Young Lions All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

That instant success and talent attracted the attention of JR Motorsports, owned by NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr., with ownership interest also held by Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick. Byron signed with JRM in 2014 to race in its late model program and continued to compete in Legends Cars. Byron finished second in the point standings at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina, with a win and 11 top-five finishes.

Byron then climbed to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2015 with JRM, winning the championship as a 17-year-old rookie with four wins, three poles and 11 top-10 finishes.

A rare blend of maturity and talent for a teenager prompted another promotion in 2016, to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports. Byron electrified the series as an 18-year-old rookie, earning seven victories and finishing fifth in the standings. Byron’s five victories were the most by a rookie in the history of the series, breaking the record of four set in 2000 by Kurt Busch.

It was time for the next step in 2017. Byron climbed to the NASCAR XFINITY Series – the last rung in the NASCAR development ladder before the premier Cup Series – in a return to JR Motorsports.

He showed promise during the first half of the season in the No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro, with six top-10 finishes in his first 12 starts. But a runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin in June at Michigan International Speedway was the first glimpse of engines firing on the pad for a launch into the NASCAR stratosphere.

Byron’s big-time NASCAR career achieved liftoff one week later when he earned his first carer XFINITY Series victory at Iowa Speedway. Fulfilling the old racing maxim about a first victory breeding more quick success, Byron won the next race, at Daytona International Speedway.

Then two races later, Byron held off 2011 Big Machine Brickyard 400 winner in a brilliant display of speed and poise under pressure to win the Lilly Diabetes 250 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Since Byron finished second in June at Michigan, he has produced three victories and seven top-10 finishes. The apple-cheeked, sandy-haired kid has arrived.

“When we first started out the year and I watched him run and be able to compete and lead, I think Michigan is when he ran – which is a really high-speed track – he ran Denny so close, we came within inches of winning that race against one of the best in the Cup Series with a team that’s won a lot of XFINITY races,” team owner Hendrick said. “That sure got our attention. Then to come back and go to Daytona and run like a veteran against some Cup guys, but just using his head, not making mistakes, hadn’t torn up any equipment.

“He just races smart. If the car is a fifth-place car he’ll run fifth, usually he can take a 10th-place car and get it to fifth or a 15th-place car and get it to 10th by being smart.

“But then the race he ran at Indy was unbelievable. It’s just been building and you just see it. The talent’s there, again the commitment’s there to live in the simulator and to learn and so fast, it’s been building since, I’d say, even before the first win, but surely that Michigan race.”

Byron is the latest star in a youth movement in NASCAR and at Hendrick. He will be part of a talented current pack of 25-and-under stars in the Cup Series next season that includes Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez.

Hendrick also will feature one of the youngest lineups in the Cup Series next season, with Byron, Elliott and Alex Bowman each age 24 or younger when they line up next February at the Daytona 500. Seven-time Cup Series champion and four-time Big Machine Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson will be the leader and graybeard in Hendrick’s driving lineup next season at age 42.

“Alex got in the car when Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) was out (in 2016), sat on the pole at Phoenix, could have, should have won the race, was fast and running in the top three or four in Michigan, we had a plug wire problem,” Hendrick said. “Chase should have won three or four races last year, led the race, finished second a bunch of times. We had a problem in the pits one time with a jack, one time we took more tires than everybody else, but very competitive and made the Chase.

“William, look, he has surprised us every time he gets in the car. My goal is not to let too much pressure be on him, to let him go out and have fun and learn, and we’ll try to get better as an organization. We’ve got Jimmie Johnson, who’s a seven-time champion and won three races this year, he will be a mentor to all three of them, already is, kind of taking the lead here. But we still have Jeff Gordon involved and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to be involved, he’s still going to be involved with the team. So they’ve got a lot of coaches.

“But the main thing is just not putting too much pressure on him and let him go out and learn. And if William continues to do what he’s done in every series he’s been in, he’ll adapt fine and he’ll learn, and you might as well let him learn in what he’s going to be driving for years to come. I’m excited. I love to watch. I love to watch the veterans, but I love to watch the young guys have an opportunity, so that’s fun for me.”

Byron’s rapid rise also has been fun for Cup Series driver Landon Cassil, who posted earlier this week on Twitter a YouTube video in which a 13-year-old Byron was picking his brain for tips after Cassill hosted a NASCAR race on iRacing.

“You never know where a racer can get his start,” Cassill tweeted.

Said Byron: “I think that was pretty cool, seeing that tweet. I didn’t even remember doing that, but that’s pretty cool to kind of see how far it’s come and see the support there. I think I was asking how to go faster, so that’s usually what we ask about as race car drivers. It’s really neat.

“iRacing was the platform for me that I was able to start racing in and understand the cars and understand all the driving aspects, so for me I think it’s kind of crazy that everything started on a video game. But I think it’s something that I really would promote to young kids coming up is to get involved, if you can’t get in a real race car, to get on iRacing and you can do it and you don’t have to, I guess, have all the contacts and everything to get in a real race car.”

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race will move to the cooler temperatures of Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, with NASCAR XFINITY Series action also taking place during the race weekend. The Big Machine Brickyard 400 will serve as the final race of the regular season, determine the regular-season champion and set the field for the NASCAR Playoffs, which begin the following weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Visit ims.com for ticket information about the 2018 Big Machine Brickyard 400 and the Lilly Diabetes 250.

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