Media Tour Tuesday 1: Byron Living the Dream in NASCAR Career
(CHARLOTTE, NC – JAN 23, 2018 – RIS) William Byron couldn't help but smile when asked about his rapidly approaching rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
The highly touted rookie from Charlotte, North Carolina, has plenty of reason to be excited: He's driving for a powerhouse team – Hendrick Motorsports – with the iconic No. 24 on the side of his car.
"This is really a dream come true to be part of the Cup Series and to be with a great race team that has a chance to win," Byron said during Tuesday's portion of the 36th annual NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway at the Charlotte Convention Center. "I think, for us, we're just all about going to try to win races and we have all the resources and tools to do that. We're trying to focus those in all the right areas."
Byron doesn't lack focus. The 20-year-old enters NASCAR's highest level having already claimed a championship in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. He steps into his new role as the pilot of a car whose number was made famous by four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon.
Additionally, this year marks a changing of the guard at Hendrick Motorsports. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson – who earned three of the team's four victories last year – is the new elder statesman. Alex Bowman steps in for the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr., while Chase Elliott enters his third season as Byron approaches his debut. Byron believes the youth movement won't slow down the progress he expects Hendrick to display early in the season.
"There are a lot of new things that I have to think about and approach differently, but I feel like this year's going to be a really good year for us," Byron said. "We have a great team with Darian Grubb as our crew chief. I feel like everybody at Hendrick is ready to get to the race track. There's a lot of excitement and a lot of new things that we're approaching.
"There's a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes. We're trying to make ourselves better on the physical side but also with the race cars. There are a lot of new approaches that are going on and I think that's all exciting stuff for us."
Chevrolet conference transcript:
WILLIAM BYRON, NO. 24 LIBERTY UNIVERSITY/AXALTA CHEVROLET CAMARO ZL1, met with members of the media at the Charlotte media tour and discussed his outlook for his inaugural Cup season with Hendrick Motorsports, the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the challenges he faces. Full transcript:
WILL THIS YEAR BE YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN THE 24 CAR? "It's definitely going to be a big challenge. There are a lot of new things that I have to think about and approach differently, but I think this year is going to be a really good year for us. We have a great team, and I feel like everyone at Hendrick is ready to get to the racetrack. There's a lot of excitement and new things that we're approaching."
WITH ALL THE SUCCESS IN YOUR CAREER, WHEN WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU WERE BEING NOTICED BY THE BIG TEAMS? "Really, when I was 16 years old, getting the call from Dale Jr.'s team and going to meet with them was probably my first big break. After that, I got the chance to go back to there with JRM when I was 18 or 19 years old and I got the chance to race for them in the Xfinity Series."
A LOT OF OLDER GUYS ARE UPSET THAT YOU AND THE OTHER YOUNG GUYS ARE GETTING ALL THE COVERAGE. IS THAT GOING TO BE AN ISSUE, AND HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT? "I think it's all relative. When new guys come in and it's a kind of fresh thing to talk about, but we're ultimately going to have to prove ourselves on the racetrack and do the things that we're capable of. I think that's going to show over time, and hopefully a couple of us young guys can win some more races."
YOU'VE TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF THE CHEVROLET DRIVER SIMULATION PROGRAM IN THE OFF-SEASON. HOW HAS THAT HELPED YOU? "It's helped a lot. I feel like they've made tremendous gains on it from when it first started a couple of years ago to where it is now. I think it's improved drastically. Chevy is always working on that, and the new Chevy Camaro ZL1 is an awesome race car. It looks so cool on the track, and it really compares well with the street car. I'm looking forward to all the exciting things Chevy has us doing and has in store for us, and I think we're going to be strong this year."
WHAT'S BEEN THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE FOR YOU FROM THIS OFF-SEASON COMPARED TO LAST OFF-SEASON? "There have been a lot of new things. This year more than ever. Learning a new system at Hendrick and learning how to go around that organization, handling 650 employees and having all those people work to make your race cars better is a lot different than in the past when there were 100 or 150. I think that's going to be the biggest thing that I learn from, and hopefully just try to be a leader of that group and try to lead our 24 team to success."
HAVE YOU TALKED WITH JEFF GORDON? "I've talked to Jeff in the off-season. He calls me every now and then, which is cool. He's just invested in our team and wants to see us succeed and wants the whole company to be back stronger. I think there's a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that we're trying to make ourselves better not only on the physical side but with the race car. There are a lot of new approaches that are going on and I think that's all exciting stuff for us."
DO YOU FEEL PRESSURE TO GO OUT THERE AND PERFORM AND BE THE NEXT FACE OF THE NEXT GENERATION OF THE SPORT? "Not really. It's not anything for us; we're always trying to progress through and advance through the system and try to get to this level. This is really a dream come true to be part of the Cup series and be with a great race team that has a chance to win. I think, for us, we're going to try to win races. We have all the resources and tools to do that and we're trying to focus those in the right areas to make sure we're ready for the season."
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU LEARNED IN THE SUMMER SHOOTOUT AND WHAT'S IT GOING TO MEAN TO YOU TO COME BACK TO RACE AT CHARLOTTE IN A CUP CAR? "Well, Charlotte has always been special to me. You go there as a fan first, and as a kid you're up there watching guys that I'm racing against now. So that's a lot different. But I would say the Summer Shootout has taught me to be aggressive. It's short-track racing and it was really my start. I think you always hold onto those relationships you build the with the people and the philosophy and mentality you have to races those cars is very similar to how you have to race the Cup cars."
YOU STARTED AT CHARLOTTE IN A LEGEND CAR AND NOW YOU'LL BE COMING BACK IN A CUP CAR. ARE YOU SURPRISED IT'S BEEN SUCH A METEORIC RISE THERE? "It is surprising, but also I want to have more success at Charlotte. I've been there a couple of times in the Xfinity Series and truck series, and hopefully we can win there. I think it would be one of the biggest wins of my career to be able to win at my home track and have the 24 car back in Victory Lane there. Hendrick is just down the road from Charlotte and you always pass by there, and it makes you think about racing season and winning there."
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT YOUR CREW CHIEF? "He has a lot of experience. He's been with a lot of different drivers and has won with every one of them. You don't find people like that very often, and I feel like he's an asset to our organization. He's won a championship in the Cup series with Tony Stewart and they went on an incredible run, and I feel like we're both most comfortable when we're working around the racetrack and working in that environment. I think the combination of the two of us is going to make for good calls and aggressive decisions. I feel he's pretty aggressive with how he approaches the weekend, and you want somebody like that."
DO YOU HAVE ANY STRATEGY TO GET SOME DALE JR. FANS TO GET BEHIND YOU? "I think results show for themselves. I think if you can produce results people are going to start looking at you as a person, and that personality is going to develop and grow as you get in more situations. The biggest thing I'm going to do is try to produce results, and if that gets more fans and more excitement around the 24, then that's all good. Jeff also is kind of working behind the scenes to transition those fans over to our car, and I think that hopefully they can find their excitement and joy at the racetrack in watching us succeed."
WHAT HAS CHASE (ELLIOTT) TOLD YOU ABOUT THE CAMARO TIRE TEST? "He hasn't told me much. It's always tough to tell at a tire test. You're always going through different combinations and stuff. I know the car drove well and I get a chance to drive it next week at Vegas so I'll see for myself. It looks really good and the guys are putting a lot of effort into it. I've never seen so many people work this hard to put the best car on the track, so I know that's going to equal results."
HAS IT SET IN THAT NOT ONLY YOU'RE DRIVING THE 24, BUT THAT YOU COULD BECOME THE ONLY GUY BESIDES JEFF GORDON TO WIN IN THE CUP SERIES WITH THAT NUMBER? "It's a really opportunity that I have to do that. Jeff has won 93 races and I get a chance to add to that legacy with the same team and everything. That part is something you look forward to, and when you have guys like Jeff or Jimmie (Johnson) behind the scenes helping you become a better driver, you can't ask for much more as a rookie. I think I have all the chances to do it and I have all the resources I need."
WHAT HAVE YOU TRIED TO SOAK UP FROM JEFF AND JIMMIE ALREADY? "Jimmie approaches the sport so differently and his work ethic is something I can try to emulate. He is always looking at ways to be better. I want to do the same."
HAVE YOU GIVEN HIM A HARD TIME ABOUT HOW MUCH OLDER HE IS THAN YOU? "He is kind of the grandpa of the organization, but it is awesome to have a seven-time champion as your teammate and have a person like him to lean on. That is really special. I think he's going to take us to school a few times, but we're going to hopefully learn from it and be better."
BEING 20 YEARS OLD, YOUR IMPACT ON THE YOUNG FAN BASE IS GOING TO BE WONDERFUL FOR NASCAR.
"The best thing I can do is be myself and try to show what I can do on the track. If we can continue to make it exciting on the track, I think that, as a younger guy in the sport, I just want to make it exciting on the track and have fun races. I think social media has been a part of the growth of the younger guys and it's normal for us to do it. It's transitioning to where people are watching updates on their phone or getting updates on Twitter, so you have to make sure you get your reaction out there about what you thought about the race and how it went for you. It's more normal for me to be on my phone. You meet a lot of fans on social media that are passionate about your team, and that's what makes it cool. You have that connection."
WHAT YEAR ARE YOU AT LIBERTY UNIVERSITY? "I'm a sophomore right now. I'm studying business communication. I started back my classes a couple of weeks ago, and I'm taking that with racing so it's going to be a little bit of a challenge. It's been working out pretty well so far. The university (logo) will be on our car for 12 races this year."
IT SEEMS LIKE EVERY CAR YOU GET INTO YOU'RE A NATURAL. HAS THERE BEEN A POINT IN YOUR CAREER WHEN YOU WERE STRUGGLING? WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO THIS YEAR TO NOT HAVE THE SAME SORT OF STRUGGLE IN A CUP CAR? "I think I struggled more with handling the relationships more early on, how to handle new crew chiefs. I had some guys who were old school in Late Models that I had to learn how to adapt to their style. My crew chief this year is really open-minded, so I think that is going to be beneficial for me. And he's worked with established guys who know what racing these cars is about, so I think I'm going to lean on him to show me how those guys prepared during the week."
HAS THE DRIVING SIDE BEEN SEAMLESS? "I think so. I think there are challenges with racetracks. It's been one of those things that has been natural and be in the car. The unnatural part has been working with a guy to get the best out of your race car. You do have to trust your instincts when you're in the race car. You just have to go and not think about it. You just not to think about it."
IS THERE ANYONE YOU'RE ESPECIALLY EXCITED TO BE GOING UP AGAINST? "Definitely excited to racing guys like Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson. Those are guys that I definitely didn't dream about racing against. I would say Kyle (Busch) as well. He's been a guy I've raced against here and there in Late Models and stuff like that, but never really toe to toe or fender to fender. I think that's going to really be a guy I look forward to racing against."
DO YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE STARTED A FEW RACES LAST YEAR? "I some ways, but starting fresh like this doesn't give me any idea of what it's going to be like. That can be really good or really bad. I just get to go in there and have a team that's established. If you run part-time, it's not the same. Not everyone is invested in it like they are if you're going out there full time."
ANY XFINITY OR CAMPING WORLD RACES? "I'll have to see what they tell me to do. Right now, I'm just focused on the Cup series. Probably try to do some of the road courses and try to make myself better there."
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE ROVAL? "I think it's exciting. I really don't know what to expect. I'm glad they took that last bit out of it because I felt like that was going to be really hard to make work. It looks good. The chicanes on the front and backstretch look like they'll be good passing zones. If you can just keep your car in one piece at the end you'll have a shot."
WHAT'S YOUR SUPPORT NETWORK GOING TO BE? "I have a good people at Hendrick to help me. They've been through this before. Hopefully, I can lean on that and be prepared. Mostly, I'll be alone and managing my schedule."
HOW NERVOUS ARE YOU ABOUT THE START OF THE YEAR? "I'm just looking forward to the new challenges I have. All the newness is something that I look forward to."
Long-time RIS staffer, beginning in the mid-80s. Charlotte, NC area local contact.