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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Beyond the Cockpit: William Byron Taking Steps in Rookie Season with Hendrick Motorsports

Since the beginning of the 2016 NASCAR season, William Byron has taken the sport by storm. He picked up seven victories in his rookie Camping World Truck Series season, then took the XFINITY Series championship last year with JR Motorsports.

Three years into his full-time national touring career, Byron now finds himself in the famed No. 24 machine for Hendrick Motorsports. At just 20 years old, he’s a year younger than Jeff Gordon when he started driving the DuPont car.

Byron’s rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has been full of adjustments. Championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb is calling the shots as the duo works to figure out the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. At 20 years old, the Charlotte native has been added to the youthful lineup at HMS, paired with Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman. Oh yeah, then there’s seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, a driver who provides unlimited knowledge and experience.

In Byron’s first nine career races at the Cup level, he has a best finish of 10th at Texas Motor Speedway in early April. However, he’s entering Talladega Superspeedway on a string of six consecutive top-20 efforts.

Despite ending the race in 12th this past weekend at Richmond Raceway, Byron arguably had his best race to date, finishing fourth and fifth in the opening two stages. Late in the event, he was caught speeding on pit road, preventing him from a better finish.

Prior to his outing at Richmond, Byron spoke to Frontstretch about his first two months in the Cup Series, whether he’s meeting his own expectations, and much more.

Dustin Albino, Frontstretch: How would you assess the first two months of the season?

William Byron: It’s not where we want to be by far. But I think that we’ve been able to put together top-20 runs, and we haven’t crashed a lot. That’s something you want to do to get your experience level up. We haven’t had the flashy success that we were kind of hoping for, but I think it’s good to be top 20 in points. Now, we’ve got to improve a little more each week. As far as results go, I think it’s a little better than expected. But we haven’t shown many flashes, yet.

Albino: Has keeping the car clean been one of the biggest strengths for the No. 24 team?

Byron: I think so. We seem to be able to run all the laps and have signs of good things throughout the race, whether it’s the beginning or the end. Most of the time, it’s been the end of the race. At Bristol, we showed signs at the beginning, and those are just trends I’m seeing that we’re able to build on. You’ve just got to make little steps. In the Cup Series, with all the competition, there’s not going to be a moment where you get to reaffirm yourself of what you did. You’ve got to take the little things, take them as small victories and build on that.

Albino: Since your first race at Daytona, how do you think the chemistry has grown with Darian Grubb as your crew chief. He’s certainly played out a lot of pit strategy.

Byron: I thought it was good. Those were good chances for us to lead laps. At California, we honestly had a really good race. We finished 15th, but I think we should have finished in the top 10. We ran top 10 for most of the day, had to start at the back, but we got on the two-tire call and it hurt us a little bit worse than we wanted it to. Overall, I think it was a good weekend for us there. That gave us some momentum. The top 10 at Texas gave us some good momentum, too. I think we’ve been a little better on the mile-and-a-half tracks lately, and the short tracks have been some learning for me and what I need in the car.

Albino: Before the season, what type of tracks did you think you would excel at?

Byron: I felt like the one-mile tracks. Phoenix is one I always circle and probably Dover is somewhere I love to go to. We’ve had a lot of success there. In Trucks, I qualified on the pole and in XFINITY I qualified on the pole, so that’s a place I look forward to. The mile-and-a-halves have been good lately. I think it always changes and always evolves.

Albino: Coming to Hendrick Motorsports, who have you leaned on the most for advice?

Byron: I think I lean on all of them pretty equally. I think that I lean on Alex the least amount because we’re both new to what’s happening. We have little conversations of what our cars are doing here and there. But it’s not as broad of information as Chase or Jimmie. I feel like Chase and Jimmie are the guys I lean on most because those are the guys that have had the most success the last couple years in our organization. I try to gauge myself off of Chase a lot of times because I think we have very similar styles. We’re really close in the shop. It makes a little more sense for me to lean on him.

Albino: I’m sure you expected some growing pains, being in a new series with a new team. Thus far, are you meeting your expectations?

Byron: I honestly don’t know. It’s kind of you don’t know what to expect. When I look at the points, I think it’s been a positive. We’re probably running where we should be as a rookie. You want more, obviously. You want to be lighting up everything, kind of like I was before.

But there are so many things that go into a good race at the Cup level. You’ve got to have good pit stops, good strategy, drive really well, and execute really well as a driver on every restart with everything you do, whether it’s on pit road or whatever. There’s no area that you can hide away from. Everything is exposed and I think that makes it tough as a rookie because you’re used to being able to get away with being average on your pit road stuff, or being average on something else, but it all kind of exposes itself.

Albino: How much has the slow start been because of the adjustment period to the new Chevrolet Camaro?

Byron: I think a little bit. But I think there’s been a lot of change and the guys have done really good at the change. It’s been a ton of things happening around the company, but in the long run, I think it’s going to be a whole lot better. That’s what we’re all buying into and what we’ve been seeing the last couple weeks – just an improvement overall. We’re getting closer and closer. All the drivers are working together, and really communicating the same has been a big step in the right direction.

Albino: Did you just need a few races under your belt to get comfortable?

Byron: Honestly, it hits you pretty quick. Atlanta and those places come up quick and there’s no real time to adapt to what’s it going to be. I don’t think I took that much time to think about it. I think the progression has just happened over time, knowing what I need out of the car and what I need to drive better.

Albino: Going forward, what do you think you need to take that next step? 

Byron: You’ve got to be really close with the car and what you want to feel out of the car. That just takes a lot of time. Overall, I think we’re making those steps every week. We’re getting better on changes and I think we get closer before the race, which is really what matters with what you do in practice. We’re starting to improve on that a bunch and that’s helping the overall effort that we’re putting into it.

Albino: What are your goals going forward this season?

Byron: To stay in the top 16 in points would be really good. Just to run close to what the other guys are doing on my team, and do what they are doing to be competitive with them. I feel like we’re starting to jump up the ladder as a whole team. If I can just keep up with that jump, then I think we’ll be in a good position to run in the top 10 each week.

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About Dustin Albino

Dustin Albino
Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2018 marks his fourth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be in the sport in some fashion. It's safe to say Dustin is living the dream.

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