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Byron’s Career Began By Ringing Doorbells

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 4 2016
NASCAR driver William Bryon got quiet a treat on Halloween a couple years back. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Ashley R Dickerson)

NASCAR driver William Byron got quite a treat on Halloween a couple years back. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Ashley R Dickerson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – We interrupt William Byron’s improbable pursuit of the 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship to revisit a not-so-long ago Halloween night and two doorbells well-rung.

Camping World Trucks Series logoWinner of the NCWTS night race at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, Byron will look for the sweep Friday night during the Striping Technology 350. More to the moment, victory in the 220.5-mile/147-lapper around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile quadoval would secure one of three spots remaining in the series’ inaugural Championship 4 Chase race slated for Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18.

Meanwhile, Byron’s future took a storybook turn in August when the Charlotte resident signed a multi-year contract with the Hendrick Motorsports/JR Motorsports alliance for a full-time Xfinity Series ride beginning in 2017. At 18, Byron is not all that far removed from his days as an iRacing.com wunderkind working on a real-world dream. And then one Halloween night William rang a couple of doorbells in the hood…

“It makes me feel real old to remember when I first met William,” Rick Hendrick, founder/owner of the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut, said of his latest prodigy. “He was trick or treating at my granddaughter’s house, and then he went to Jimmie Johnson’s house right around the corner.”

Byron said he doesn’t remember the costume he was wearing that night. “But I have the pillow case (satchel) that has Jimmie’s signature on it,” said William, referring to the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion from HMS. “And I remember going to school the next day and nobody believed me. It was just really cool.”

Byron has re-defined the term “breakout season” this year at the wheel of the No. 9 Toyota Tundra fielded by reigning Cup champion Kyle Busch. William scored his first series win on Kansas Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval on May 6 in just his fifth start. Now a six-time winner with 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 20 starts, Byron began the Truck Series’ eight-driver/seven-race postseason as the No. 1 seed. In fact, he could conclude his brief tenure at KBM as Sunoco Rookie of the Year, Truck Series champion…and anything-but-lame duck.

“I mean, definitely this year has been good for us,” Byron said in a classic bit of teen-age understatement. “You’ve got to take these opportunities when they’re out there.  Hopefully, that’s what we’re going to do; that’s what we’re focused on in the next round of the Chase.”

Recall that Byron overhauled two-time series champion Matt Crafton with five laps remaining en route to victory in the Rattlesnake 400 night race here in June. Crafton had led 133 of 167 laps and looked like he was cruising to victory before lining up alongside Byron for the race’s final restart. The two battled for the lead for several laps before Byron fell back into third. But with 10 laps to go, Byron passed series veteran and pole-sitter Johnny Sauter for second and began reeling in Crafton. Byron paced only six of the 584 laps-led he has posted thus far this season on that summer night. But with his second career NCWTS victory, William became the youngest series winner at TMS and the second-youngest overall _ a record set by Hendrick teammate-to-be Chase Elliot in the XFINITY Series in 2014.

“I really like Texas because it was slick and had a good rhythm about it and a lot of cool things that were fun,” Byron said. “It’s a neat racetrack. That win got us on a roll.

“I (now) have the track time and the experience of knowing what it takes to win there. The only difference will be the track conditions, since it was much hotter when we raced there in June. It was really hard to judge what the truck would be like when the lights came on and everything cooled off. It’ll be interesting there this weekend to see what the track is like. I think we’re going to have a lot of speed and hopefully get that ticket to the next round of the Chase.”

Persistent rain forced NASCAR officials to cancel two scheduled practices Thursday afternoon. A single, one-hour session is set for 8:30 a.m. (CDT) Friday, with qualifying at 2:45 p.m. Fox Sports 1 will air its race coverage beginning at 7 p.m., with the green flag to fly at 7:30 p.m.

Sauter led 50 laps en route to victory in last Saturday’s Texas Roadhouse 200 at Martinsville Speedway. Sauter’s second win of the season and 12th of his career secured the first berth in the Truck Series Chase Championship 4 on HMS’ 1.5-mile layout. Sauter, who will compete here in the No. 21 Allegiant Travel Chevrolet Silverado fielded by GMS Racing, LLC, is trailed on the Chase Grid by Christopher Bell (13 points above Crafton on the cutoff line), Timothy Peters (+12), Byron (+9), Crafton (-9) and Ben Kennedy (-10).

Crafton (spring 2014 and spring 2015) and Sauter (2012 sweep) are the only other Chase drivers who have won at Texas.

The youngest of four children of Bill and Dana Byron, William has not let his meteoric rise through the racing ranks inflate his ego. As a youngster, Byron began following NASCAR and begged his father to take him to his first race at Martinsville in 2006. William soon became a regular on iRacing and a student of the sport.

“iRacing is a computer simulation, basically a video game, and it’s done all around the country where you can race anyone who’s a real person online,” William said. “It’s really cool and a lot of people race and have a good time and learn some things. But I wasn’t really sure it would translate to a real track. I got into a real car when I was 14. I just figured I could drive the car and had the ability, but racing a real car…there’s a lot of different things going on. Luckily it came pretty fast and it came pretty smoothly.”

Taking his passion beyond the hobby stage, William and his father visited the U.S. Legend Car headquarters in Harrisburg, N.C., in the summer of 2012 to learn about an affordable/accessible way to begin a racing career.

Real-world success at every level followed. Byron was crowned U.S. Legend Car Young Lion Division National Champion in 2013 and NASCAR Whelen All-American Series (NWAAS) North Carolina Rookie of the Year in 2014 driving for NASCAR/Hendrick Cup superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Late Model program at JR Motorsports. Byron added the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Championship to his burgeoning resume in 2015. All the while “Mr. H” was taking notes on that kid who rang his doorbell in search of a Snickers.

“For me, Jeff Gordon was special,” Hendrick said of the four-time Cup champion. “Jimmie Johnson was special.  Chase Elliott was special. William I’ve known and I’ve watched and I’ve been amazed, so he’s special. The fit factor, the ability to work with sponsors _ all those things are critical in this business. When I look at someone that’s got talent I like to see a guy that can excel outside of the car, too. The job he’s done in that truck has been amazing. The job he did in K&N, he won the championship and what he did in Legend Cars all over the East Coast _ I mean, he has won in everything he’s ever got into. That’s critical to us.

“I told his dad, ‘You know, it’s almost like the water boy for a football team that ends up being the quarterback.’  It’s been a really neat experience for our whole company. We’re just really excited to have William in our future.”

But first, Byron will attempt to join Erik Jones as the second consecutive Kyle Busch Motorsports driver to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship in the same season. Jones won the Truck Series race here last November, leading 117 laps in the same Tundra Byron is racing Friday night. And owner/driver Busch also won with this Toyota here in the 2014 fall race. Listed as KBM-021, it’s the winningest Tundra in the KBM fleet with nine victories.

Byron led the point standings for 11 consecutive events dating to mid-June before falling to fourth after last weekend’s eighth-place finish on Martinsville’s paperclip-shaped, half-mile oval.

“It’s different,” said Byron, addressing his exit from P1, “but last weekend we had a lot of adversity in practice. In qualifying we had oil on the track before we went out and in the race we had a couple of mistakes. It’s good we were able to rebound from that and be ahead of the cutoff line for the final round. We also know that we can’t lean on that gap, so we have to try to get a win like we have all year. I know we can turn the adversity into a positive and hopefully move onto the final round.”

Byron is working with crew chief Rudy Fugle and a team that includes 10 members from the group that won last year’s Truck Series championship with Jones in the No. 4 Toyota.

“I feel like both Texas and Phoenix (International Raceway) are good tracks for us coming up this round,” said Fugle, scouting the schedule. “Phoenix has been predominantly KBM’s best track. As a group, we probably should have won every single time we’ve raced there. We’re really good at Texas, too, so we want to get a good, solid finish. If we’re in a good spot there at the end, we’ll fight for a win.”

Byron said Busch, Fugle and his team are handling his impending exit like seasoned pros. “They’re looking forward to winning a championship as a group, that’s what they want to do,” Byron said.  “I’m very fortunate that Mr. H invested in me and wants me to see this through. I was always a big Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson fan when I was kid so it makes a lot of sense for me to be at Hendrick. That was my ultimate goal as a kid. I’m happy that somebody is taking a chance on me and my future based on this year.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 4 2016
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