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Industry Insiders Tab K&N Champion William Byron as NASCAR’s Top Prospect

Newly crowned NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion William Byron is one of the most fascinating prospects to come through the development ladder in quite some time — and according to some of the smartest insiders within the industry, Byron has the potential and tools to become a superstar for years to come.

This would have been an outlandish statement a year ago as Byron was merely in his third season behind the wheel of anything. Remarkably, Byron had only started racing in 2012, at 14-years-old, after dabbling in iRacing and attending NASCAR races with his father.

But once the Charlotte native caught the racing bug, he committed to it wholeheartedly, placing his entire focus into mastering the discipline. In order to do some, he surrounded himself with some of the best in the business, including Legends ace Doug Stevens and NASCAR Truck Series star Daniel Hemric, who both guided the youngster in his formative seasons.

What both of them discovered was a naturally talented and disciplined youngster who carried himself far beyond his years. Hemric raced wheel-to-wheel with Byron in Legends and even fielded a Pro Late Model for him in 2014 and immediately saw the potential for excellence.

“As soon as I first saw him make a lap, I knew the potential was there,” Hemric said. “But then to see him study the sport, and really apply himself the way he does, I knew then that he had what it takes to get it done.”

Byron zoomed through the ranks over the next four years, driving Legends, Pro Late Models and Super Late Models during that time span before announcing a full K&N campaign for 2015. At the time he unveiled his HScott NASCAR ride, many in the industry felt the learning curve would be steep, especially against a field that contained tour veteran Scott Heckert, Chili Bowl Nationals champion Rico Abreu and fellow Late Model standouts Kyle Benjamin, Dalton Sargeant and Kaz Grala.

And once again, Byron exceeded expectations — winning in just his second start at Greenville Pickens Speedway. He would take over the championship lead the next week at Bristol and never looked back. While Byron has always placed high expectations on himself, he never thought the accolades would pile up this quickly.

He entered the season simply wanting to win a single race and earn the respect of his peers. He did that and then some, sweeping the championship, Rookie of the Year honors and the Most Popular Driver award in his debut season.

Despite the hardware, Byron has remained humble and quick to praise his fellow competitors.

“It really means a lot to win the championship,” Byron said. “I knew this had the potential to be a challenging season just because of the driver lineup that joined the series — from Dalton who came off finishing second at the Snowball Derby to Rico, who had won the Chili Bowl. There were so many championship possibilities.

“I made some mistakes (in the season opener) at New Smyrna and thought we could have at least finished third. So we were only a little surprised when we won at Greenville, but we didn’t start thinking about the championship until later in the season because there were so many talented people here.”

Byron has also immersed himself in ARCA, making two starts this season at IRP and Kentucky in order to prepare for a future in NASCAR once he turns 18 in November. While there, he drove for Venturini Motorsports, arguably the most notable development program in the sport.

Team manager Billy Venturini has coached a wide range of prospects, including Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Brennan Poole but believes time and experience could prove Byron to be the best of them all.

“I would say that Will is at the top of that list, right there with Logano,” Venturini said. “I’ve always said that Joey was the best that I’ve ever come across and Will is right there. Erik Jones was good when I got him but he wasn’t as naturally prepared, but has improved at an incredible rate. What makes Will so remarkable is just how naturally talented he is.

“All he needs is experience at this point. Look, he’s going to make some mistakes. He spun out at Kentucky in his first (intermediate) start but he’s not going to make them twice. He’s so intelligent. He’s just smooth and smart and works so hard to make sure that he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He has the potential to be as flawless as they come.”

Venturini doesn’t issue praise easily, adding to the credibility of the top prospect.

When told of the acclaim given to him by Venturini, Byron simply said to tell him ‘thank you’ and went on to credit Billy for all the advice and perspective given to him over the past several months. Even as the industry has lionized him since winning the championship last month, Byron is always quick to commend those around him, part of the reason he’s been so successful.

Byron is a sponge and is a blended byproduct of Hemric, Venturini, Stevens and K&N owner Harry Scott whom echoed the sentiments shared by Venturini.

“He’s just a tremendous talent,” Scott said. “He obviously started later than many of his peers but he has such a sharp mind for it. He’s smart and he gets it. He’s very suave in how he races and he’s always willing to listen to and learn from the veterans.

“He takes their advice to heart and that’s how these guys grow.”

Having enjoyed success in both K&N and ARCA, the next stage of growth for Byron is in Trucks and XFINITY where the popular teenager expects to spend 2016.

“We’re close to announcing our plans,” Byron said. “I don’t know the timetable for sure but I feel like we’re making the right steps. It’s something where I feel like we can grow and still be competitive — that’s important to me. I’ve got a lot of good people around me and I’m fortunate that I can kind of hand-pick the best situation.”

No matter where Byron lands, expect him to stay true to himself. Even though the industry is expecting greatness, Byron plans to remain humble, stay focused and continue learning, because after all, it’s already taken him further than he could have ever imagined.

EMAIL MATT AT matt.weaver@popularspeed.com

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By Matt Weaver

Matt Weaver is the Executive Editor of POPULAR SPEED. He has covered NASCAR since 2011 and full-time since 2013. Weaver grew up in the sport, having raced himself before becoming a reporter in college at the University of South Alabama. He has been published all across the country and routinely makes radio appearances on Sirius XM Satellite radio and NBC Sports Radio Network.