Only 17 months ago, William Byron claimed a watershed victory in the Camping World Truck Series at Kansas Speedway.
It was the first NASCAR win of any kind for Byron, who was still three weeks shy of his high school graduation and had just skipped his senior prom for another Truck race at that time.
Boy, how things have changed.
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Byron returns to Kansas for the Xfinity Series’ Kansas Lottery 300 on Saturday as the top seed in the second-tier series’ playoff chase and will move into the Monster Energy Cup Series next season.
“It’s definitely weird,” said Byron, who was driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports at the time. “Last year, I was sitting up here with Kyle and my crew chief, (Ryan) Fugle, and the excitement of winning the first race was super exciting.”
Byron, now 19, won six more Truck Series races during the 2016 season and was the Sunoco Rookie of the Year.
“I didn’t really know what was ahead of us that year and if I was going to run the Truck Series again or whatever,” Byron said. “Then, we got to that fourth or fifth win and kind of knew we were going to do something different the next year.”
He signed a multi-year agreement with Hendrick Motorsports in August 2016, moving up to the Xfinity Series for 2017.
But the move to stock cars and a stiffer level of competition didn’t seem to faze Byron, who’s won three times with nine top-five finishes and 18 top-10s in 29 races entering his second race at Kansas.
"It's really impressive just for the fact of how short of a career he's had so far in racing," Busch said. "Reminds me a lot of myself. … He's done a really good job of making the most of his opportunities that he's been given, because he's smart (and) been in good stuff all the way up through the ladder."
Two months ago, Hendrick announced that Byron would take over the No. 24 car and replace Kasey Kahne in the four-car team’s Cup Series lineup for the 2018 season.
“He’s certainly doing a great job and, obviously, next year’s going to be a big year for him," seven-time Cup series champion and fellow Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson said. “He has a lot to learn and absorb for the Cup Series, but we’re very optimistic about what he can do.”
Chase Elliott, who currently drives the No. 24 car made famous by Jeff Gordon, is switching to No. 9 — an homage to his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott — next season.
He’s already getting in work and picking Johnson’s brain over lunch, but Byron also feels like he’s got unfinished business.
A blown engine in the round of eight ended his Truck Series championship hopes last season, but he’d love to make another move up with an Xfinity title.
“It would be huge,” Byron said. “"The pressure of these races and how you’re got to approach them, it’s something you hope to be able to practice. That’s something that I hated that I missed out on last season. … Every racer wants that one shot to have to win at Homestead.”
The Kansas Lottery 300 is the first race in this season’s Xfinity round of eight, so Byron wants to get off to a good start — and is happy to return to Kansas for that chance.
“It’s very special to be able to see the racetrack again and be able to come back to it,” Byron said. “I remember what that was like, and getting your first win is always really special.”