by JEFF BIRCHFIELD
Carving his own unique path, the 21-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., developed as a driver through iRacing, an online computer simulator. Byron was 14 before he strapped into an actual race car, a Legends car, where he quickly adapted and won 33 of 69 races to claim the U.S. Legends Young Lions national championship.
He’s been on a fast track ever since and is now in his second full season behind the wheel of the famed No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet entering Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Food City 500.
He’s a product of being at the right place at the right time. Now, even the car makers like Chevrolet use simulators, ones even more advanced than those Byron grew up with.
“Chevrolet has put a lot of effort into their simulation program,” Byron said. “We go almost every week and use it as a tool. I feel like the iRacing gives me a way to continue to further my skills.”
Byron, who is also a student at Liberty University, said the simulators served as a valuable resource for both the driver and his crew.
“I would say the car setup really works for us. We go to the sim on Tuesdays and we use that to tune in our race cars for the weekend. I feel most of the time it overlaps well,” said Byron, who is 18th in the series points standings. “Some tracks, it’s a little different because the rules package is different. We still can use it as a tool and progress ourselves for the weekend.”
The youngest driver in the Hendrick camp, he often leans on seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, his neighbor and teammate, the most for advice. This season, Byron is paired with Johnson’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus, with whom Johnson won all his championships.
For Byron, the situation is like a young NFL quarterback getting to work with a coach like the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick.
“It’s been really good. He’s a different personality, but it’s good working with him,” Byron said of Johnson. “We get along well and we interact during the week and communicate. I’ve been enjoying it and, hopefully, we will continue to improve.”
Next up is Bristol Motor Speedway, where Byron won the pole position for the NASCAR K&N Series race in his first visit to the high banks. In his two Cup races at Bristol last season, he finished 18th and 23rd. To get ready for the Food City 500, he’s taken extra time in the simulator, although he said nothing prepares a driver for the high banks like the real thing.
“We’ve used the simulator quite a bit for Bristol, but it’s a place you have to go to a few times,” Byron said. “It’s a tough track and this year with NASCAR’s new aero package, it’s going to be really fast. I don’t know whether the bottom or the top is going to be the place to be. It’s going to be a fun race and faster than last year.”
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