With Daytona 500 win, William Byron has arrived as NASCAR’s next superstar

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Can’t-miss prospect. Prodigy. Future superstar. These are all labels that were placed on William Byron as he ascended NASCAR’s development ladder. Some drivers who have this heavy praise lavished on them don’t meet the expectations. Somewhere along the way, the rocket fizzles and the once-promising career doesn’t pan out as envisioned. They plateau. The opportunities don’t materialize.

It’s a story that has played out many times throughout NASCAR’s history. But Byron is quite the exception. Already, at age 26, he’s proven to be the can’t-miss prospect that didn’t miss.

He won big in his lone year in the Truck Series in 2016. He won the 2017 Xfinity Series championship as a rookie. Driving for Hendrick Motorsports since his Cup debut, he earned Cup Series Rookie of the Year honors in 2018, then qualified for the playoffs the next season and every season since. And after his Daytona 500 triumph Monday night, he now boasts 11 victories at NASCAR’s top level. Maybe that figure seems low at first blush considering Byron is in his seventh year in Cup, but since 2020 — the season he won his first race — his 11 wins are more than former Cup champions Joey Logano (9), Martin Truex Jr. (8), Kyle Busch (7), and Brad Keselowski (5) have during that same span.

Whatever “it” is that separates great drivers from those merely good, Byron has it in abundance. And he’s only going to get better as he gains additional experience. His initial foray into racing came via iRacing, an online racing simulation, and he didn’t start driving actual race cars until he was a teenager, as opposed to most other Cup drivers who started much younger in Legends or go-karts.

“That talent is one thing, but then the race craft and the work ethic and all these other things that come along with it,” Hendrick vice chairman Jeff Gordon said while celebrating in victory lane. “How you communicate what a race car is actually doing so your team can make it go faster and how you work together as a team. That’s the remarkable thing to me. And clearly, he’s unique and special in a way that …”

Before Gordon could finish his thought, the roar of the ongoing Xfinity Series race interrupted him. Nonetheless, his point was obvious: Byron is a unicorn. A generational talent who every step along the way has risen to meet the expectations before him, regardless of how high the bar is set.

“Everybody said he had natural talent,” Byron’s mother, Dana Byron, said about her son. “He caught on so quickly (when he first started racing) that by a couple of months in, he was beating everybody. At first, he wasn’t and then he just kept studying and studying and practicing.”

Byron maybe didn’t need a Daytona 500 win to cement his status as NASCAR’s next superstar. He already stamped his mark last year in a breakout 2023 season that included winning a series-best six races and ranking first in top-fives, top-10s and average finish, as well as second in laps led.

William Byron hugs his mother, Dana, after winning Monday’s Daytona 500. “Everybody said he had natural talent,” Dana Byron says of her son’s rise in NASCAR. (James Gilbert / Getty Images)

But one tremendous season does not define a career nor make a legacy. This comes over time, stacking one great season after another, filled with gaudy statistics like Byron racked up last year. If you only do this once, well, people tend to throw around the dreaded “F” word (fluke).

A student of the sport, Byron understands this reality. He’s seen drivers win big one year, stumble the next and never recapture their winning mojo. Those around him say this is part of what motivates him. Team owner Rick Hendrick described Byron as carrying a “chip” with him into the 2024 season, and Byron agreed.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get that chip off my shoulder,” Byron said. “It’s always been there. It’s just I’m very quiet about it. I don’t know. There’s always reasons to find. We didn’t win the championship (last year, when he finished third), and we don’t get talked about the most, and other people get more publicity, things like that, and I feel like I just — 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 offseasons 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. I can be a lot more complete in the car, and I feel like your race craft and things are always evolving, and just trying to be a better version inside the car with my team.”

Even within the Hendrick organization, Byron is often looked at as the “other guy,” something that he readily acknowledges — and that adds motivation. When your teammates include Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, each former Cup champions widely regarded as among NASCAR’s elite, it can be easy to get glossed over.

The only way to change this perception is to win, both races and championships.

“I use it all as fuel, so just keep it coming,” Byron said. “All the preseason predictions and everything.”

What Byron is, though, and what Larson and Elliott are not yet, is a Daytona 500 winner. Within Hendrick, only Byron carries this distinction. He also has more wins than Larson and Elliott since the start of last season.

“Today was a major step,” Gordon said. “I think the Championship Four last year and then following that up with the Daytona 500, he’s well on his way.”

This point Byron drove home Monday night before a national television audience, emphatically announcing his status as NASCAR’s next superstar. Not only has he arrived, it’s also clear that he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.



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(Top photo: Jeff Robinson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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