Byron headlines NASCAR's underappreciated next wave of stars

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- It is time that we start doing a better job of appreciating William Byron. Actually, it is past time for us to get on board the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy and the affable 26-year-old North Carolinian who wheels it.

He is a freshly minted Daytona 500 champion. His second victory of 2024, on the Circuit of the Americas road course two weeks ago, was the 12th win of his career, marking the third straight season he has won at least two races and his fifth straight campaign with at least one trophy, including last year's series-best six. He has made NASCAR's postseason playoff field in six consecutive seasons, his only miss coming in 2018 when he won the consolation prize of Rookie of the Year, and last fall he made the Championship 4. Oh, and he also won the Xfinity Series title in 2017 ... and the year before that set a record for rookie wins in the Truck Series with seven.

That all feels worthy of our collective praise, certainly more praise than it feels like he is currently receiving or has ever received.

But why is recognition of his feats such a rarity?

There are those -- like, a lot of those -- who will tell you that William Byron is not Jeff Gordon, the original captain of that car and a four-time Cup Series champion. They are also quick to remind us that he's no Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time champion who was essentially discovered and hired by Gordon. They'll also say he's not Chase Elliott, or Kyle Larson, both Cup titlists and both his HMS teammates.

You know who else would tell you all of that? William Byron.

"I know that I am not Jeff Gordon, but when I get that car with his number on the side, I want to do everything I can to do right by Jeff and by the history that number represents," Byron explained last month, adding that if he ever needed a reminder of all that, it usually comes in the form of a prerace, getting-into-the-car visit from Gordon himself, now the chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. "He likes to joke that there's no pressure and that it's not his car anymore ... but I also don't think he's really joking. There's still a part of me that can't believe that conversation is even happening. I mean, it's Jeff Gordon! I grew up watching him race."

The first time Byron saw Gordon race in person, it was nearly 20 years ago, at the very racetrack where he will drive Gordon's old ride this weekend: NASCAR's oldest racetrack, Martinsville Speedway. It was 2006, and 9-year-old William, who had become obsessed with NASCAR as a toddler, convinced parents Bill (yes, William is a junior, but don't call him that) and Dana to stay for the entire 500 laps. They watched Gordon and Johnson battle at the front, as they seemingly always did on the half-mile oval, and witnessed Johnson take a huge step toward clinching the first of those seven titles by season's end.

Not long after, Byron, who grew up in South Charlotte not far from the homes of Johnson and Gordon, rang the doorbell of Johnson's house on Halloween. He screeched out a "Trick or treat!" and held out his bag for candy.

"Then," Johnson remembers, laughing, "He told me that one day he was going to be my teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. And he was. For three years. And honestly, it wasn't very long after he told me that. What, maybe 10 years, tops?"

"Jimmie was my guy, my hero," Byron recalls, as he has over and over again since February, when Johnson was among the first drivers to visit Daytona 500 Victory Lane to congratulate the kid with the Halloween bag on winning NASCAR's biggest race. "Literally every Sunday I had his die-cast cars in my room and just dreamed about what it would be like to be in his shoes."

Byron has not filled those shoes yet, but he's way ahead of schedule. This, after a career that got started behind the normal driver development schedule, with shoes that were pressing digital pedals in his bedroom instead of those in the floorboard of a stock car.

The man who wears the most current model of Daytona 500 champion's ring was -- and is -- a gamer. He was in the late stages of elementary school and the beginnings of middle school when he signed up for iRacing and started assembling a home simulator rig piece by piece. By that age, Gordon, Larson, Elliott and every other racer you've heard of (and countless more you will never hear of) had already started logging thousands of laps in competitive karting and quarter midget racing. Even Johnson, whose path was considered atypical, was racing motorcycles by the age of 4.

But Byron was turning laps and winning races while sitting perfectly still, with more than 100 victories over two seasons at the same time he was becoming a teenager, preparing to become a high school student (where he was known as Billy, but don't call him that, either) and also working toward earning Eagle Scout honors with his local Boy Scout troop.

"We worked hard to make sure that even though he was clearly wanting to become a race car driver, that he still had some sort of balance as just a boy, experiencing a lot of life, not just racing," Dana Byron said, beaming from the corner of the Daytona International Speedway media center as she watched her son sit down for his post-Daytona 500 news conference in February. "But he knew what he wanted to do, and there was no stopping that. I have joked that all these parents who get mad at their children for playing video games, worried that it's a waste of time. Well ..."

She pointed at the dais, where William was hugging it out with Gordon and explaining how he had somehow held off a field of wrecking race cars to win the Great American Race.

"Sorry, parents, we might have given your child the excuse they needed to keep playing those games."

There is an entire corner of Hollywood dedicated to this very subject. The dreamer who pretends to be doing the real thing and somehow ends up doing it for real. It's Mark Wahlberg as Izzy Cole in "Rock Star." It's Doug Masters in "Iron Eagle." It's the starry-eyed stage-side singers in Foreigner's "Juke Box Hero" and the country crooner in Travis Tritt's "I'm Gonna Be Somebody." Last summer, it was "Gran Turismo," based on the true story of Jann Mardenborough, who went from sim racer to real-life sports car racer, running events across an alphabet soup of series for a total of seven seasons, including three starts in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

With all due respect to Mardenborough, though, or even Izzy Cole of Steel Dragon, none of their fantasy-to-reality accomplishments are even on the same lap with what Byron has accomplished in his still-young through-the-looking glass career.

When he did finally slide into the seat of a stock car, it was in the Legends series, the decades-old boxy roadsters that have been the launching pad of a huge percentage of today's NASCAR Cup Series starting grid, from Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney to the Busch brothers and Elliott.

"I had no question about his love for racing," admits his father, Bill, who owns a financial services firm and dabbled in late-model racing years ago. "But it's an investment of money and time, so I really put it on him to prove why we should do this. He came back with a presentation. A five-page paper. That's really all you need to know about his work ethic."

Unlike those Cup champs, when Byron first wheeled one of the 1,300-pound, 130-horsepower Legends machines, he was not good. The perception among his peers was that he was just another rich kid who was in over his head. This was the Eagle Scout/five-page paper kid, though. Every conversation he had with Legends vets, drivers and mechanics was spent furiously scribbling observations into a notebook that he carried with him at all times.

Byron made his first Legends start in late 2012. The next winter he went to an event in Florida, running seven races and wrecking out of five of them.

"The difference between sitting in a sim car and a real car, the visuals are the same, the way the car reacts to mechanical changes, that's very similar, and it's obvious that real-life forces and even smells and noise, that's all different in real life," Byron illustrates, adding that this applies not only to being in one's at-home rig but also to Chevrolet's multimillion-dollar simulator in which he and every other NASCAR driver spend countless hours now. "But the biggest difference is consequence."

In other words, real walls hurt. Real cars are ruined. There is no reset button.

"Once you learn that, then everything about it is being smart, about picking your spots, knowing when to do things instead of just doing them and seeing what happens," Byron continues. "You think about all the possibilities before you make a decision, the best that you can in the amount of time you have, which usually isn't much. But that's where simulation helps now. Try it in there first, where there is a reset button."

Thus far, he hasn't needed a lot of reset buttons in the real world. By any measure, his rise has been stunning.

In his first full year of Legends, he won 33 times. The talk of the spoiled kid out over his skis vanished, thanks to the wining and also as people witnessed his work ethic firsthand. Ignoring talk about Byron's late start at the ripe old age of 15, he was signed by Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s late-model program, then graduated to race ARCA, K&N and eventually trucks for Kyle Busch. He won that 2017 Xfinity title in dramatic fashion over JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler and was in the No. 24 car the next year. Then came the dozen wins and counting, already more career victories than Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Sterling Marlin and NASCAR Hall of Famers Cotton Owens and just-elected Donnie Allison. He is only a few wins from moving onto the same career wins rung as Ernie Irvan, Curtis Turner, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Harry Gant, Geoff Bodine, Neil Bonnett and, yes, Chase Elliott.

Did we mention he's doing it while also attending college full time?

"It's online, so I keep a pretty low profile, but there are times when we are working on a group project and I have to introduce myself," he says of his continuing education at Liberty University, also one of his sponsors ... although he still does have to pay tuition. "But when the question comes up, 'Well, William, what do you do?' answering that can be a bit awkward."

But why? And how do they not already know who he is? It is a confounding anonymity.

It isn't an issue exclusive to Byron, either. Many of his NASCAR generation continue to express irritation that they are overshadowed by bigger brand-name drivers despite the fact that their numbers are just as impressive -- if not more so. See: Christopher Bell, who has made the final four the past two seasons, but still bristles over the fact that he didn't receive as much as a phone call from the producers of the new Netflix reality show until a bit of a Hail Mary call at the very end of last season.

And, as the world learned via that same series, Byron is not exactly a hair-on-fire party animal. Most viewers' takeaway was that he loves Legos. However, what could possibly be more relatable than someone who has made their dreams come true, from racing video games to the Harley J. Earl Trophy, while also grinding it out in the Boy Scouts and college? And he certainly is not the first Hendrick driver to be framed up as vanilla, a list that is topped (albeit inaccurately) by his hero, Johnson.

If Byron is being honest -- and he has been much more publicly open about this since his Daytona win -- the lack of recognition can be frustrating. Right there in that post-500 news conference, it was Byron who described himself as Hendrick Motorsports' forgotten star, behind Larson, Elliott and all of the HMS legends who came before him.

"I'm always the 'other guy,' right?" he says with an eye on the team's de facto 40th anniversary event this weekend at Martinsville, the place and race where Bodine earned the first of the team's record 304 Cup Series wins. "That has been hard on me. I have probably let it bother me too much, but it has also been a big motivator for me. I came into this year with a chip on my shoulder because of it. I am a quiet guy. I got a relatively late jump on driving. I don't come from a long line of racers. But OK, underestimate me. See how that works out."