The best NASCAR drivers from around the world will converge on Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 26 for the renowned Coca-Cola 600. The race will feature Charlotte’s own William Byron, the reigning Sunoco Rookie of the Year.
Byron, a 2016 Charlotte Country Day grad who still lives in south Charlotte, placed ninth last week at the All-Star Race and is primed for a good showing at his home track.
Sports editor Andrew Stark caught up with Byron to get his feelings on this week’s race, his thoughts on his hometown and much more.
Stark: How cool is it going to be this weekend being back home in Charlotte and getting to race on your home track?
Byron: Yeah, it’s my second year for the 600 but I’m excited about it. I’m looking forward to (putting into place) what we learned in the All-Star Race. Going into this race, it should help us with the notebook we have from last week, for sure.
Stark: How much does last year’s experience help you specifically when it comes to the track at Charlotte Motor Speedway?
Byron: It helps a lot. This is a very temperature-sensitive track, so you have to take a different approach. You have to do it during the daytime, and then have a nice transition from night time when it really counts. I’m trying to learn a lot from what that day-to-night transition is for us and hopefully that’s successful.
Stark: How many tickets do you have to buy for friends and family and that kind of thing with the race being local?
Byron: That’s a good question. I have my family coming with my parents, obviously. My sister is actually coming into town from New York so that’s going to be great. It’s not a lot really. I feel like it was more when I was still racing in high school in the truck series but everyone is kind of spread out now. There aren’t as many people in town for the race, but definitely I will have some people coming, which is always nice.
Stark: Do you still live Charlotte? And if so, what area of town do you live in right now?
Byron: I live in south Charlotte in an apartment complex near Park Road Shopping Center. I’ve been living in Charlotte my whole life and I’ve been in that area, within about five or 10 minutes or so, my whole life. I really like that area. It’s home for sure, and it makes it really easy to come home after the races and have a nice place to go to.
Stark: What are some of your favorite hot spots to hang out around town?
Byron: I really like the Cotswold area and the South End area because there’s a lot of people my age, and there are a lot of really good restaurants there. I spend most of my time in the Cotswold area.
Stark: Do people recognize you often when you’re out?
Byron: Definitely in the last couple of years, that’s become more common.
Stark: Back to racing for a minute, can you tell me how you first got involved with Hendrick Motorsports and what’s it like to have the support and backing of a Hall of Fame owner and his team?
Byron: I started my relationship with Hendrick Motorsports when I was coming out of the truck series in 2016. I was racing in the truck series and had won a few races when I first got the call from ‘Mr. H’ in July of 2016. That was the first big breakthrough in my career and obviously a huge deal. The connection has grown into the Cup Series and the opportunity I have now is definitely a great one.
Stark: What’s it like to have the backing of that behind you?
Byron: It’s great. It gives you a big sense of confidence knowing you’re with a great team that has the potential to win races. That’s all you can ask for, and that’s what it’s all about. So, yeah, it gives you a lot of confidence and the ability to do everything I need to do. I’m very fortunate for that, and I’m also fortunate for being on a team I looked up to as a kid. That’s really important.
Stark: Do some of the recently retired Hendrick guys like Jeff Gordon still come around and give you advice or do you get to see those guys a lot, too?
Byron: Yeah, they do. Jimmie Johnson, obviously being my teammate, is a big help to me and he’s able to guide me and coach me through some things and that’s really important. Outside of that, I’d say Jeff Gordon for what he does for Hendrick Motorsports and in the broadcasting booth. I get a chance to talk to him most every week about what we’re doing and he helps quite a bit and has helped with my progression.
Stark: Has there ever been a moment meeting someone in racing where you’ve become a little bit starstruck?
Byron: Yeah, I’d say Jimmie because he was a big part of my childhood growing up when I’d watch racing. I’d say I was a little starstruck when I first met him and got to be teammates with him and having interaction every week. But, that would probably be about the only guy.
Stark: You started racing Legends cars when you were 15, which is relatively late to most other drivers. You’ve had to push through this a little faster than some guys. How has that helped you in your career?
Byron: It’s definitely been a shorter projection for me coming from a shorter background and not coming from a racing family. I always persevered and I loved racing myself. Nobody else pushed me into it, and I think that’s something that has helped me progress without feeling that pressure from the outside. I think that’s always been a good thing for me. There’s been less pressure – over really the only pressure I put on myself – so I think that has been the biggest difference because I haven’t had that outside pressure to do anything. I’ve been on my own patch to get here.
Stark: You’ve always been a south Charlotte guy and you were a Charlotte Country Day graduate. How long did you go there and when did you graduate?
Byron: I went to Country Day my whole childhood and graduated in 2016. I was there from kindergarten through 12th grade, so it was a home for me. I kind of knew everybody because not a lot of the people leave or change over the years, so that was a cool thing and an important part of my childhood.
Stark: What was the best part of that small-school environment for you where you know all of the kids?
Byron: I think it was cool. I got a chance to know everyone from scratch, play sports with everyone through the years and things stayed the same for the most part. I had the ability to be very comfortable in that environment, play sports with the same kids I grew up with. It was a comfort factor. I think it allowed me to pursue other things and not have to worry about the social aspect of things. I think I had a really good environment where I got to pursue racing as a career.
Stark: What are some of your good memories of growing up in this area?
Byron: Playing Pop Warner football off Carmel Road for a few years. We were the Falcons and that was a lot of fun. I built a lot of relationships that way and kind of had to learn how to be tough. That’s helped me all along my racing career as far as being tough and being able to stand up for yourself. I broke some bones doing that, but it was a lot of fun. I think it led me toward racing because of the similarities between the two. And then there’s starting my career here. I was racing Legends cars up in Concord every Friday and Saturday night and really learning a lot from that.
Stark: Now you’ve arrived on the biggest stage of NASCAR. What are some of your goals this season?
Byron: My goal is to try to win a race. I think our overall goal is to win the playoffs, but we’d like to win a race and we have a lot of potential to do that. I’m real excited about what’s ahead for us, and I feel like we’re on the right path.
Stark: It seems that way with the Rookie of the Year honors. What does that do for you as far as motivating you and assuring you are trendingin the right direction?
Byron: It is motivation. Being recognized for the work you’ve put in and the things you’ve accomplished is good. Really, my inner drive comes from my will to succeed and from what racing means to me and what I do it for. That’s the most important thing to me, but outside recognition is nice, too.