William Byron racing in mom's honor after her cancer diagnosis
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
DARLINGTON, S.C. – William Byron had lunch with his mother Saturday, a day before competing on Mother’s Day at Darlington Raceway.
It wasn’t just a son having a meal with his mother. It was a son having a meal with his mother just weeks after finding out she had a brain tumor.
Dana Byron had what they initially thought was a stroke-like event while at Martinsville Speedway four weeks ago. She underwent tests and was diagnosed with a rare, but treatable, form of brain cancer.
Byron said his sister has moved home and they have tried to spend time as a family when they can.
"It’s a little bit different feel around the race track," Byron said about balancing the news of his mother’s health and doing his job. "I’m definitely racing for her and trying to support her. But she’s proud of me no matter, what I feel like. She’s told me that.
"I was definitely excited to see her. She means a lot to me."
William announced his mother’s diagnosis on Tuesday, knowing that Mother’s Day questions would be awkward and knowing she was comfortable with him releasing the information publicly. He said they have received an outpouring of encouragement.
"She wanted people to know so that they could support and pray for her," Byron said. "I think it’s going great."
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On the track, Hendrick Motorsports driver is having the best Cup season of his four-year career. After two dismal finishes to open the year, he won at Homestead to start a string of 10 consecutive top-10 finishes.
It is the longest streak by a Hendrick Motorsports driver since Jeff Gordon in 2007, and he is the youngest driver ever with a 10 race top-10 streak. The latest in that stretch was a fourth-place finish Sunday at Darlington.
The transition to racing Cup hasn’t been easy for Byron – it’s not supposed to be, especially for a driver as young as him. He made the playoffs in 2019 and 2020 but has flourished this year.
"I’d say for two years, I really felt out of the box," Byron said. "I felt uncomfortable I guess, in a way. I kind of felt like in order to produce the results and be upfront, I had to really drive kind of over your head in a way."
And now? He doesn’t feel uncomfortable at all. He said the only way to shake that uncomfortable feeling is to have those results.
He certainly has had them with four top-5s and 10 top-10s this year, which puts him third in the series standings.
But he’s not just finishing in the top-10, he’s running most of the events in the top-10. He hasn’t earned the top-10s thanks to strategy nor attrition. He frequently finishes the stages in the top-10.
"It just shows the strength of the car, our team, our communication, all those things," Byron said. "If you’re running 15th all day and you finish in the top-5, it might feel nice, but it doesn’t really show much points-wise.
"I feel like for us to run where we finish all day is impressive and that’s what the good teams do, and I feel like we’re in that mix."
For the first time in his Cup career, he can have confidence that he is performing at the level that many saw earlier in his career. Five years ago after turning 18, Byron started gaining attention as he won seven truck races while driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. He then won the Xfinity Series championship with four victories in 2017.
That quick elevation to Cup – the main storyline around him was that he used virtual racing to help develop his skills – and driving for one of the elite teams in Hendrick Motorsports piled on the expectations.
"There were, in a way, some unnecessary standards kind of put on me when I got to Cup to perform a certain way because of how I had quickly kind of ascended," Byron said.
"But none of that really mattered once I got to Cup because I almost had to re-learn a lot of things which, I feel like is similar for anyone who comes in."
For the first three years, it didn’t seem Byron was totally in sync with his crew chief. He started with Darian Grubb for his rookie year and then had two seasons with seven-time Cup championship crew chief Chad Knaus.
When Knaus decided to take a Hendrick management role after the 2020 season, Byron knew the crew chief he wanted – Rudy Fugle, his crew chief from those seven truck victories at KBM. Fugle never had worked as a Cup crew chief, but Byron felt comfortable and had full confidence in him. And vice versa.
"It’s Rudy and I first time going to these tracks [in Cup]," Byron said. "There’s a lot of room to still go, but we’re doing great."
It can’t be ignored that Hendrick also has improved its fleet.
"It’s communication, chemistry, and the fact that we’re getting good cars from the shop," Byron said. "It’s really important. You can’t overlook that. You’re only as good, really, as the speed of your car.
"The effort that goes into that is tremendous. ... Everything is going better this year."
At least on the track, they are better. Off the track, Byron knows his family has tough days ahead. He said his mother is in great spirits.
He planned on going to see her after the Darlington race, which ended in the early evening about two hours from his home.
"It’s a short drive so I’ll probably get home and maybe go get some ice cream or something," Byron said.
That ice cream probably isn’t part of his driver training regime. But considering the success so far this year on the track and spending time with his mother before her treatment begins, no one would blame Byron for it.
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Thinking Out Loud
When NASCAR announced that it would move the Darlington race that would have the throwback theme, some fans believed that Darlington’s throwback weekend should be the Southern 500, no exception.
But with the Southern 500 now the playoff opener, it made sense for NASCAR to put its throwback theme for the race last Sunday. Teams could focus on the paint schemes and marketing them rather than focusing and talking about the playoffs. It gave the May race – a new race on the 2021 schedule as it gave Darlington two scheduled races for the season – an immediate identity.
No doubt the Southern 500 is the Darlington race with the most history. But the throwback is designed to be a fun event, and it seemed that it was fun with having it in May.
Stat of Note
For the sixth time in his career, Martin Truex Jr. swept both of the two opening stages and won the race as he swept the stages and captured the victory Sunday at Darlington.
They Said It
"This is a big one. Even though this isn’t the Southern 500, it is pretty damn cool to win at Darlington, no matter when it is." – Martin Truex Jr.
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!