NASCAR & Auto Racing

This driver learned to race in a simulator, now he's on the cusp of NASCAR stardom

William Byron didn't get behind the wheel of a race car until he was 15 years old, learning the sport on iRacing, a popular online simulator backed by NASCAR. When he was 18 and still in high school, Byron won the May 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway. He now races in the Cup Series.
William Byron didn't get behind the wheel of a race car until he was 15 years old, learning the sport on iRacing, a popular online simulator backed by NASCAR. When he was 18 and still in high school, Byron won the May 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway. He now races in the Cup Series. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Two years ago, William Byron lined up on the front row of a NASCAR race for the first time during a Camping World Truck Series appearance at Kansas Speedway.

He was still three weeks shy of his high school graduation that night as he drove the No. 9 Liberty University Toyota into Victory Lane for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Now, he may well line up next to Busch on Saturday in the KC Masterpiece 400 when the Monster Energy Cup Series rolls into town for its annual Mother’s Day weekend night race.

Byron, 20, went on to win seven of 23 races in the Truck Series during 2016. He moved into stock cars last season and won the Xfinity Series title, collecting four wins and 22 top-10 finishes in 33 races, before sliding behind the wheel of the iconic No. 24 car this season for Hendrick Motorsports.

Still, for Byron — a native of Charlotte, N.C., who also won the K&N Pro Series East championship in 2015 at age 17 — his path to the Cup Series is perhaps more unusual for its roots than its rapidness.

Unlike most drivers, Byron didn’t cut his teeth in go-karts or tearing up anonymous dirt tracks. His introduction and ascension as a racing prodigy came instead via iRacing, a popular online simulator backed by NASCAR.

Byron didn’t actually get behind the wheel of a race car until he was 15 years old, but that hasn’t prevented him from holding his own against the Cup Series’ other young guns — a group that includes Hendrick teammates Chase Elliott (22) and Alex Bowman (25) as well as Ryan Blaney (24), Kyle Larson (25), and Erik Jones (21).

“iRacing gave me the platform to know what I was going to get into and how I could improve my skills,” Byron said.

He learned the mechanics of making a pit stop and completing a pass, but there are a lot more nuances for which iRacing couldn’t prepare him.

“At this level, everything is so close,” Byron said. “It’s really like going golfing. You just have to do it and be in the seat of the car to really understand what’s going on.”

The learning curve remains steep — Byron hasn’t started better than ninth or finished better than 10th this season — in the ultra-competitive Cup Series, but he hopes he’s reached a place where he can bank on stability and continuity moving forward.

“It takes quite a few races to understand where you guys need to be,” Byron said. “Things change every week, because you are going to a new race track and even the rules change sometimes.

“The cars are always evolving, and that’s the biggest thing that you have to keep up with, but you have to be really close to your race team to know you can hit on what it takes to be successful. It takes time to build that chemistry and get the trust level you need.”

Byron has been paired with crew chief Darian Grubb, whose last full-time season in that role was 2015 with Carl Edwards. But Grubb’s resume includes multiple seasons with Tony Stewart, including a Cup Series title in 2011, and Denny Hamlin.

Perhaps Byron can channel some of his past good luck on Kansas Speedway's 1.5-mile tri-oval in kick-starting an already promising career.

“When I come to Kansas, I always think about my first win there,” said Byron, who finished fourth in last October’s Xfinity race. “That was really my first big break in NASCAR, to win there in the Truck Series. … It’s always a place I look forward to (racing), because it’s a fun place to come to and always has good memories for me.”

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