Interview: Why NASCAR's Rookie of the Year still isn't satisfied

Image by Cantrall/LAT

Interview: Why NASCAR's Rookie of the Year still isn't satisfied

Insights & Analysis

Interview: Why NASCAR's Rookie of the Year still isn't satisfied

William Byron’s rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series would grade out at a B – if he were generous.

“There [have] been some things I look back on that are positives, but the competitor inside me wants a lot more,” Byron tells RACER.

Byron, the 21-year-old talent who has quickly risen through the NASCAR ranks, was crowned Sunoco Rookie of the Year over Darrell Wallace Jr. An honor, of course. The first goal to check off the list, and something that Byron says the No. 24 team can look back on.

“I’m really fortunate to be a part of the Cup Series, it’s something that is really special, and I get a chance to race against the best guys each weekend,” he says. “That’s really fun, and I’m enjoying that part of it, for sure.”

However, stepping back to look at year one driving for Hendrick Motorsports from a wide lens, things didn’t unfold precisely as Byron had expected them to. With the 2017 Xfinity Series championship in his pocket, Byron moved up cold turkey, without a single Cup race under his belt. And that was after just one year apiece in the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series.

Expectations and the belief in him were high, though: a February headline in the Charlotte Observer announced: “NASCAR rookie William Byron could save racing.” And the ROY award was Byron’s third straight at the national level.

After surviving an early crash in the Daytona 500 for a 23rd-place finish, Byron was off to the races. It took until the seventh race of the year at Texas to score his first top-10 finish in the series, and his second came in race 21 at Pocono Raceway. That sixth-place effort would be Byron’s season-best.

“I knew there would be some challenges, or things I’d go through,” says Byron, who ended the year with four top-10 finishes and an average finish of 22.1. “I figured the high spots would be a little higher. The ups and downs have been pretty similar to what I guess I thought we’d go through. But at the same time, [I thought] things that we would accomplish would be a little higher. But ultimately, that is what it is.

“You’ve got to look back on what you’ve done well, and what you haven’t done so well and what you can improve on as a group. As a group, that’s what I think is most important, how you gel and work together.

Byron adapted quickly to his new surroundings. Image by Kinrade/LAT

“I didn’t really set specific goals. There were so many unknowns with just joining the team and everything; I didn’t really know what to expect as far as goals. I was more open-minded. I think competing for wins is what we always set out to do, so I figured there’d be a little bit more of that. But I think it’s going to come in time, and [is] something to look forward to.”

Since 2013, Byron has consistently had success, whether it’s been in Legend Cars and Late Models or K&N, the Truck Series then Xfinity. Competing for wins and championships became second nature: an expectation that leads to a certain mindset.

But in 2018, Byron was back to square one, sitting under the learning tree. Searching for his place while getting a hold on the series, the car, and the competition.

“You become more mentally tough and strong, because you have to go through that,” says Byron of his change in psyche. “A lot of times in my career either a mistake happens, or a bad run happens, and the next week you work twice as hard to get to the next track and see the result, whether it’s a top five or win or competing for a win. Where this year it’s like, you work twice as hard, and you don’t see any difference, and you’re like, what’s the deal?

“I think it builds on itself a little bit, and ultimately, some things you’ve got to let go of, and just focus on what the immediate goal is. Whether that’s finishing 10th or 15th, whatever, for that weekend. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself in terms of what I can ask for myself given the situation.”

It took until about May for him to began to feel acclimated into the Cup Series, the rhythm of its schedule. Other than that, nothing thrown Byron’s way felt too overwhelming.

“It’s still racing,” Byron says.

There were slight differences. Naturally, the competition level is higher. Pit road and restarts are more intense. Byron explains that in the Xfinity Series you might come down pit road with 10 other drivers, but in the Cup Series, it will be 25. On restarts, you might be racing six or seven other drivers in the Xfinity Series. In Cup, it’ll be probably 15 or 16.

Pocono was a breakout race. Image by Whitton/LAT

“The race, in general, is a lot longer and there’s so many things that happen during a race that it’s hard to remember all that goes on,” Byron says. “There are so many variables, and so many things going on during a race, you can have one good run and then the next run you feel you’re close to the same, and everyone else has improved. That stuff happens all the time. You’ve got to continue to improve throughout the weekend.

“Good days are still good days – if you’re winning a race in Xfinity, it takes the same thing in Cup to win a race. But I would say if you’re off, or it’s not your day, it’s going to be really noticeable.”

July 29 at Pocono was a remarkable day for Byron for all the right reasons. Fast in practice and qualifying, he had to start from the rear because of inspection issues. He wasn’t there long, and the Gander Outdoors 400 was not only a career day, but the race Byron says was the best he drove all year.

“I remember when practice started… for whatever reason we were fast,” he says. “The first lap I hit the racetrack, we were top five or 10,” he said. “Then from there we qualified sixth, had to start in the back, but then when we started in the back, we made our way to ninth or 10th and ran there all day and finished sixth. That’s the one.

“We also led some laps in that race – it was a strategy deal, but we were able to keep that. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you I did anything different. We were just faster and more competitive.”

Even though Bryon had nine DNFs on the season, he completed 91.2 percent of the laps (9,352 of 10,250), and led 61 laps across eight races.

So yes, looking at the whole picture, and being generous, Byron’s rookie season grades out at a B. His ROY trophy will fit in nicely on the mantel. But he is far from satisfied with how the season went.

“No, definitely not,” Byron said. “Definitely want a lot more, if I’m honest with it. I’d love to look back on this year and be proud of the Rookie of the Year, which we are, but going into the off-season there’s a lot of work to be done, and I think it’s going to be exciting; looking forward to that stuff.

“I think when we go to Daytona, hopefully the mentality is better and we can improve.”

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