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Byron clear favorite to win rookie award

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 27, 2018 at 6:51 PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When it comes to this season’s NASCAR Rookie of the Year contenders, William Byron is the clear-cut favorite.

Byron, 20, takes over the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet ride made famous by Jeff Gordon.

He’s also coming off a Xfinity Series championship and earning Rookie of the Year honors in the last three series he’s raced. He was Rookie of the Year for the K&N Pro Series East in 2015, the Camping World Truck Series in 2016 and the Xfinity Series last season, when he also won the championship. But Byron knows the next step to the elite level of stock car racing is the biggest one yet.

“It’s definitely going to be a big challenge,” Byron said at the NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “A lot of new things I have to think about and approach differently, but I think this year is going to be really good for us. We have a great team, and I feel like everyone at Hendrick is ready to get to the race track. There’s a lot of excitement and new things that we’re approaching.”

His last two years have brought plenty of excitement with seven Truck Series wins in 2015 and four Xfinity wins during last year’s championship run.

Byron’s journey to one of NASCAR’s most storied teams is unique. There are the well-known stories of him as a youngster in Charlotte, trick-or-treating at current teammate Jimmie Johnson’s house. His skills were honed on iRacing games where he was good enough to compete against Cup Series drivers. Those skills learned with the computer simulation have translated well to the real action on the track.

Not surprisingly, Byron has been getting used to the new Camaro Cup Series car by spending an extensive amount of time at Chevrolet’s driver simulation program, which gives the closest feel possible to being inside a race car.

“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.”

One area which is different for Byron is that Gordon, a part-owner of the team along with Hendrick, calls him from time to time to check in. He’s also working with crew chief Darian Grubb, who won the 2006 Daytona 500 as interim crew chief for Johnson and the 2011 NASCAR championship on the pit box for Tony Stewart. Byron said the rookie driver and veteran crew chief have the same philosophy when it comes to racing.

“I think the combination of the two of us is going to make for good calls and aggressive decisions,” Byron said. “I feel he’s pretty aggressive with how he approaches the weekend, and you want somebody like that.”

Byron likes the situation he’s in, not only the good equipment for which Hendrick is known, but having instant access to a pair of drivers who have combined for 11 Cup Series championships.

“Jeff has won 93 races and I get a chance to add to that legacy with the same team,” he said. “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.”

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