LOUDON, N.H. — At the height of professional sports such as NASCAR’s Cup Series, the talent-level margin between athletes can be razor thin.
Any edge, advantage, leg-up, etc. gets snatched up and utilized, hidden from the rest of the garage, and sometimes even teammates, with the hope that this can be the ticket to an improvement in performance or, hopefully, a championship.
Sometimes it’s an engineering breakthrough, an intricate diagnosing of a particular track or futuristic analytic statistics.
But sometimes, especially in racing, it’s just as simple as putting your butt in a seat and hands on a steering wheel — no matter when or where.
Certain Cup drivers over the past few decades have always sort of double-dipped in grassroots and other racing disciplines in between Sundays — you don’t have to look past the reigning series champion and his extensive dirt schedule for a prime example — but it feels like we’re starting to see it more and more in recent years as that margin grows ever thinner.
Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron, on hand Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to practice and qualify for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race (2:30 p.m. ET, USA Network) before Sunday’s Cup event on the 1.058-mile oval (3 p.m. ET, USA), raced — and won — at Wisconsin’s Slinger Nationals Tuesday night.
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) July 13, 2022
In addition to the two trophies he’s collected in Cup, Tuesday’s win was his sixth late-model victory of the year. His schedule is more packed than ever and he’s not getting as much shuteye as his first few premier-series years, but he’s having fun. And he’s becoming a more confident race car driver.
“I had a great time at Slinger (Super Speedway). … I enjoyed it,” Byron said. “You know, I’ve raced a lot more this year. And I’ve loved what it’s done for just the use of my time, like, I can be back home, you know, trying to prepare for the race as much as I can. But being out at the race track, it’s just fun. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy doing that during the week. And yeah, it’s tougher on the schedule, like you get less sleep, you don’t have as much time at home, all those things are true, but it’s just been a lot of fun to do it. … And yeah, it does bring over some confidence because I feel like I’m in a race car learning. And I can just have some fun.”
He’s not the only one turning extra laps at the grassroots level this week, either. Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing driver/owner Brad Keselowski was in Vermont for the Governor’s Cup on Thunder Road Speedbowl’s 1/4-mile high banks and Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick will race his spotter Derek Kneeland on Friday Night in the Granite State at Lee USA Speedway’s 3/8-mile oval.
My first trip to Vermont was a lot of fun!
Nice to return to my late model roots. Might have to do this more often now 😊👍🏻
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) July 15, 2022
— Tyler Reddick (@TylerReddick) July 14, 2022
Even if the tracks, cars, banking or any other variable are different, it’s still racing. It’s still fine-tuning that competitive edge. It’s still experience.
And there’s a reason champions do this.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how difficult like each race track you go to, or each series you go to there’s the people in that series are the best at what they do,” Byron said. “So, you know, when we went up to Wisconsin and raced Slinger, like, I was 29th in practice at the beginning. I mean, my car was a lot better than that. And I was probably going to get better than that, too. But it’s not easy just to go to these different places and just, you know, insert yourself and so that’s what makes it so impressive what Kyle Larson did last year and what other guys have done in the past. I mean, Kyle Busch used to travel to all these places. Matt Kenseth, people like that. So I think that it’s, it’s cool that Brad went and did that last night. And it’s just, it’s fun to see the different environments.”
Of course, it never hurts to win, too.
Byron was one of the hottest drivers in the early portion of the Cup season, becoming the first two-time winner with wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. In the 11 races since? Just one top 10.
At no point has Byron been down on himself and his team in this stretch, however, and it’s probably helping keep the mojo up that he’s still collecting trophies and oversized replica checks.
“I think winning does wonders for drivers, in terms to, I mean, I think that you see momentum build when our Cup team won those two races really close together within a couple events and you see momentum from that from a driver perspective. And then when I go in the late model side, like, you know, we’ve obviously won six in a row, which is, you know, we would not have expected that, but it builds momentum.
“ … I think going to do all this stuff during the week is trying to get me back to that level. And me as a driver, us as a team. So we’re spending more time than ever, in the simulator, things like that, trying to just get ourselves back to where we feel like we need to be even though it’s not playoff time. And people can say oh, well, you know, you’re locked in with two wins, we definitely see like, right now is a really critical point to get us back to where we want to be.”
Every advantage matters. And if Byron regains his early-season momentum, now you know why.