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    Friday, June 14, 2024

    William Byron has battled 'imposter syndrome' in his climb from computer racer to Daytona 500 champ

    William Byron waves to fans during driver introductions before Daytona 500 qualifying auto races at Daytona International Speedway, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

    Daytona Beach, Fla. — William Byron grew up in the hotbed of NASCAR, so close to the stars that he could trick-or-treat at Jimmie Johnson's house every Halloween.

    He'd tell Johnson every year that someday he'd race alongside him at Hendrick Motorsports. But aside from decorating his Charlotte, North Carolina, bedroom with Johnson memorabilia, Byron had no idea how to actually make it into the top racing series in the United States.

    After all, he didn't even race.

    So he taught himself his race craft on a computer — to the point he'd get yelled at to stop messing around with his racing games — and became determined to make it in NASCAR.

    "It's all about what gets you up in the morning, what is it that you absolutely can't go without? For me, that was racing," Byron said. "I didn't know I was going to be a race car driver. But getting in through iRacing and being on there, I was obsessed. I would go in there every hour of the day. I had to balance it with other things. ... but racing was what always was my passion.

    "If you find something that you love, you spend every minute of the day thinking about it."

    The self-taught racer made it in 2016, when he was 18 and of NASCAR's legal age to compete in a full season of Truck Series competition. He drove for Kyle Busch Motorsports and won seven races under the guidance of crew chief Rudy Fugle.

    He was soon a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports and in a Cup car two years later. Team owner Rick Hendrick put Byron in the famed No. 24 Chevrolet that Jeff Gordon drove to four Cup titles and 93 career wins. Hendrick tried different crew chief pairings, and it was Chad Knaus, who led Johnson to his record-tying seven titles, who led Byron to his first victory in 2020.

    The next year, Hendrick brought Fugle into the organization to work with Byron and there's been no looking back. Byron on Monday won the rain-postponed Daytona 500 to launch Hendrick Motorsports' 40th anniversary celebration on the exact day the team made its Daytona 500 debut four decades earlier.

    "I think when you look at his work ethic and (Fugle), they're a lethal combination. The confidence level between both of them, it's amazing," said Hendrick. "William puts in the work. That's all he thinks about. He's in the simulator. He's watching tapes. He has worked so hard. People don't realize how much time he puts in. When you think about his age and how smart he is and how he races like a guy that's been doing it for a long time, doesn't make many mistakes, but he just eats and drinks and sleeps winning."

    Byron snapped a Daytona 500 losing streak for Hendrick that dated back to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014. He became the sixth different driver to win the 500 for the team and the ninth Daytona 500 win for Hendrick Motorsports tied the organization with Petty Enterprises for most in NASCAR history.

    Gordon, now vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, believes Byron will make his own name for himself in Gordon's old car.

    "I try not to be biased, but William is making it hard on me. It is 2024, and the 24 is always going to be very, very special to me," Gordon said. "But what I loved the most is seeing him make it his number and building that fan base not only 24 fans, they have been around for a long time, but his own fans.

    "A win like this, my gosh, this is going to elevate that up to the next level and bring a whole lot more new fans to the sport and for William."

    It might also be a boost for Byron's confidence, which he admitted he's sometimes struggled with as a racer who came through a non-traditional route to drive for the winningest team in NASCAR history.

    He was teammates with Johnson, and at 26 years old is currently the youngest driver on a roster that includes Cup champions Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, as well as Alex Bowman, who finished second to Byron on Monday at Daytona International Speedway.

    "I'm the other guy," joked Byron, who lost last year's Cup title to Ryan Blaney, the older brother of Byron's girlfriend.

    But he admitted to difficulty sometimes in accepting that Byron is where he's supposed to be in his career.

    "I feel like I've always had a bit of imposter syndrome because I race against Jimmie Johnson, like this guy was my hero. Literally every Sunday I had his diecast cars in my room and just dreamed about what it would be like to be in his shoes and now I get to race against him," Byron said. "It's a pretty crazy emotion to go through, just getting into the Cup Series, just honestly being happy to be there, and then figuring out, 'OK, well, what are my goals? What are the things I want to accomplish?'

    "I feel like I've always had a bit of kind of work through fear because of fear, and I feel like that's fueled me because I never want to lose the opportunity to race in the Cup Series and have a shot to win races with the team I'm with."

    And so a year after winning a Cup Series-high six races, Byron opened 2024 with a bit of a chip on his shoulder — as if his peers don't actually take him seriously and they know Elliott and Larson are the stars at Hendrick. After his strategy led to a Daytona 500 win, Byron now wants to carry it all the way to the Cup championship in November.

    "I don't know if I'll ever get that chip off my shoulder. It's always been there," he said. "There's always reasons to find. We didn't win the championship, and we don't get talked about the most, and other people get more publicity, things like that. Whatever I find, I use as motivation. It's just the way I've always been internally. I don't express that a lot. But it definitely burns inside.

    "I feel like that's what fuels your off-seasons a lot of times is just what can I find? What little edge can I find to be the best? There's still tons to learn."

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