William Byron still remembers the championship celebration unfolding in front of him – only this time, he wants to be part of it.
Byron, 19, is in his first season in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series, but this time last year he was still part of the Camping World Truck Series. He was the playoffs’ top seed as a rookie. He broke Kurt Busch’s record for rookie wins (seven). He even won the final race of the season at Homestead.
If only it mattered.
Despite his excellence all season, Byron blew an engine in the second-to-last race of the year at Phoenix, which eliminated him from the playoffs. His victory in the season finale therefore didn’t do much other than elevate Byron to fifth in the standings and clinch Rookie of the Year honors for him. He still watched as another driver lifted what he thought should have been his trophy.
“It was definitely a gut punch going through the final race and not having a chance at it,” Byron said Tuesday. “I didn’t really think about the championship until I saw them celebrating and saw the excitement and what it means to win one.”
This year, Byron finds himself in a similar position. He’s the playoffs’ top seed, again as a rookie. He’s won three races and finished in the Top 5 eight times. The only differnece is that this year, he wants to be holding the trophy come season’s end, not staring at it from afar.
That doesn’t mean Byron is already picturing himself in his Liberty University fire suit up on stage with confetti raining down. Rather, he knows from last year’s shortcomings just how tough it actually is to outlast a whole field of drivers.
“I don’t know if I really visualize it that much,” Byron said. “Visualizing that stuff is in fantasies only. ... If you put that hype on yourself, you kind of psych yourself out or get too tired.”
The thing is, this is Byron’s one shot at an Xfinity Series title. Next year, he’s been tapped to move up to NASCAR’s Cup Series, continuing his meteoric rise through the racing world. He’ll even drive the No. 24 car made famous by Jeff Gordon, who himself won four championships at NASCAR’s highest level.
It would be easy for Byron’s mind to wander, for him to already start thinking about his jump, but he says he hasn’t. That heartbreak from last season is driving him. The future can wait. For now, he’s concentrated on the present.
That means hanging on the four next seven races at least, and then hopefully, he can finish this season with a win, just like he did last year.
Only this time, he’ll make sure other people are watching his championship celebration.
“I really want to win a championship,” Byron said, “especially after what happened last year.”