William Byron knows how to qualify. Now, he is looking to prove he can win at NASCAR’s highest level.
The Charlotte native would love nothing more than to win his first Cup Series race at his home track of Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600.
He has put himself in a good position: The 21-year-old Byron has his No. 24 Liberty Patriot Camaro ZL1 out front for NASCAR’s longest race, becoming the youngest driver ever to capture the pole for the crown jewel event.
“This is a dream come true,” said Byron, who attended the race every year while growing up.
Qualifying first and finishing first are two different things, as Byron has learned repeatedly this year.
He started on the pole at the Daytona 500 but finished 21st. He also started on the front row at Texas, Bristol and Dover but failed to register a top-five finish. He has two top 10s this year, but his finishes haven’t matched his strong showing in qualifying.
“There are a lot of things we’ve got to do right to get to that point,” Byron said of winning the 600. “But, I think the speed has been really good and the execution of our race last weekend was nearly flawless from a team’s perspective and then from my perspective. So, I think we’re getting there, for sure. We’re close.”
Byron’s first attempt at the 600 a year ago did not go well. He crashed and called it a “miserable” day, something he plans to use as motivation on Sunday.
“I really had that thought in my head going into this week is to just make it better than what last year,” Byron said. “I learned from that and the mistakes I made. … And, it helps when the guys bring a really fast car and that just makes your job easier. I think it’s going to be added motivation going into the weekend.”
It will help to have Chad Knaus in his corner, too.
The crew chief extraordinaire knows a thing or two about how to get around Charlotte Motor Speedway, pairing with Jimmie Johnson to win the Coca-Cola 600 four times. Only Darrell Waltrip (five) has more.
“We had a really good conversation today about a 600-mile race,” Byron said of Knaus. “Just the balance characteristics and the changes the track goes through, but the cool thing about him is that there are certain tracks where he really lights up and likes to talk about. … It’s really cool to listen to him about what he’s got to say about this place. He’s got a good idea of what we need to do to be successful here. Hopefully we can get the balance right on Saturday and have a really good Sunday.”
It’s expected to be a grueling race. Temperatures are forecast to be in the mid-90s as an early heat wave hits the East Coast.
Over the course of a 400-lap race, Byron knows his experience — or lack thereof — will be tested. He’s never driven 600 miles in a race before after joining the Cup Series last season.
Still, Byron doesn’t like to be viewed as a “young” driver.
“I don’t really like having the youngest term attached to me because I’ve always been the young guy and I just want to be part of the conversation as a normal person, no matter what age I am,” Byron said. So, I don’t really look at myself as younger than other guys, just as what I’m doing and how I’m doing it compared to them or everybody out there. But yeah, it’s cool. But I really just look at myself as a race car driver.”
On Sunday he hopes to look at himself as a Cup Series winner.