Sports

From fan to driver: Charlotte native William Byron’s fast ride to NASCAR’s top series

Heading into last weekend’s race at Daytona, William Byron was the only NASCAR Cup Series playoff contender without a top-5 finish this season.

But that changed on Sunday, even after Byron started 40th in a backup car.

As the red flag waved under a stormy sky, the 21-year-old Byron found himself in second place — and he would stay there once NASCAR officials called the race. Justin Haley, a 20-year-old, part-time Cup driver, would be declared the race winner.

For Byron, though, his runner-up finish was a long time coming.

He’s won Rookie of the Year honors in NASCAR’s top three series and has five Top 10s in his past eight races — but a Cup victory continues to elude him. He’ll try again Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, where he won a Truck race in 2016.

Byron, a Charlotte native, grew up around the race tracks, going with his father, Bill, since he was 6 years old. He began training on an iRacing simulator as a teenager, racking up over 100 wins and 298 top-5 finishes.

In 2012, when he was 15 and still a student at Charlotte Country Day, Byron moved on to Legends cars. He won 33 races his first year. Two years later, he caught the eye of JR Motorsports, co-owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., and signed to drive in their late-model program.

Then a phone call in 2016 changed everything for Byron.

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NASCAR driver William Byron, a Charlotte native, heads to Kentucky Speedway this weekend in search of his first Cup Series victory. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“Everything happened really fast once I got into the sport, but I was watching the sport for a long time,” Byron said. “So that’s been the story of my careers.”

Juggling it all

Byron had a full plate as a senior at Country Day: student, racer and Eagle Scout.

From Saturday morning to Saturday afternoon, he worked on his Eagle Scout project, thanks to his father’s nagging.

“When I was doing my Eagle Scout project, my dad was pushing me to finish it because it’s like, ‘I know how important this is going to be for you. You need to go do it,’” Byron said. “He wouldn’t help me at all because you can’t really have anybody help you with it. It pushed me.”

Byron made bookshelves for retirement homes to put in their music rooms, and as he worked, he kept the latest race on in the background.

“Everything circles back to racing for me,” Byron said. “So it was motivation, that once I got this done, I could go race and I’d be done with it, and maybe it would lead to opportunity.”

His faith provided added motivation and comfort as well, said Byron, who grew up in a Christian home.

“It really kind of took on its own meaning for me once I started racing,” he said, “and I was kind of really all my own traveling all the time.”

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Charlotte native William Byron is one of two drivers to win Rookie of the Year honors in NASCAR’s top three series. John Raoux AP

Byron said it was hard for him to find balance in his life. There were expectations on the track, in addition to personal and academic demands.

“It was hard to balance having friends and what I wanted to do with my life, and I figured out that I really need to pursue what I’m interested in and not what other people are interested in,” Byron said. “That’s where my faith kind of grew ...

“I just started to race, and then my faith came with that because I was on my own and trying to figure out how to survive out there.”

Byron, then 17, also started taking online courses through Liberty University, a Christian school in Virginia that’s now his NASCAR team sponsor. After he graduated high school in 2016, he began to pursue a business communication degree.

“It’s kind of a balancing act all the time,” Byron said.

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A phone call from NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, right, changed the career path for Charlotte native William Byron. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The call that changed everything

Byron was sitting next to his father in an airplane when Bill’s phone started ringing.

With Byron eavesdropping, Bill listened to the message. It was Rick Hendrick.

“He’s like, ‘Hey, I want to talk to your son about possibly working with your son,’” Byron recalled the NASCAR team owner saying.

To this day, Byron still remembers the date of that call — July 3, 2016.

He had met Hendrick while driving for JR Motorsports, and Byron thought the encounter would be one that Hendrick would later forget.

Apparently not.

After a dominant rookie season in the Truck Series in 2016 — seven wins and 16 top-10 finishes driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports — Byron moved up to Hendrick’s Xfinity Series team. He won four races, had 22 top-10 finishes and was named Rookie of the Year — again.

In August 2017, Hendrick announced that Byron would replace Kasey Kahne in the Cup Series the following season. Byron finished with four Top 10s and joined Erik Jones (2015-2017) as the only drivers to win Rookie of the Year honors in NASCAR’s three national series.

Byron’s competitive nature helped him quickly reach new heights.

“Once I figure it out, it really sticks with me,” Byron said. “So I don’t know how much that’s natural or not. But I never really have the ability to kind of calculate that because I didn’t start racing at a young age.

“I had watched a lot of racing for a long time, and that probably kind of changed the way I approached it once I got into it.”

He’s eager for that first Cup win.

Until that moment comes, Byron will focus on the competition and his faith, feeding off of the energy and danger of the sport he loves.

“Every opportunity I’ve gotten has a lot to do with (God),” Byron said, “and just being around the right people at the right time.”

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