Long: William Byron's journey to Daytona 500 champion is a remarkable tale

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Twelve years later, the impression Daytona 500 winner William Byron made racing a Legends car remains vivid to Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams.

“Man, this kid’s got a long ways to go,” Williams recalled.

Unlike other drivers, Byron didn’t begin racing at age 5 or 6 or 7 … or even 10 or 11 or 12. Byron was 14 years old when he ran his first Legends Car race, which Williams saw.

“He wasn’t very good,” Williams told NBC Sports, laughing at the memory. “He wasn’t very good.”

Byron had been a standout for years on iRacing, a motorsports simulation, but that had not been a path to stardom in NASCAR. One needed to be racing a car or some other vehicle well before 10 years old to succeed in this era.

Until Byron.

He harnessed a talent and passion that overcome a lack of experience and rapidly made his way to NASCAR. Byron won a series-high six Cup races and competed for the championship last year. Monday night, he won his first Daytona 500 and gave car owner Rick Hendrick his first win in this race since Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed the 2014 event.

NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500
NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500

What drivers said after William Byron won Daytona 500

The 2024 Daytona 500 featured three cautions for on-track incidents and two for stage breaks.

Before walking to the grid to compete in Monday night’s Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway, Williams stopped in Victory Lane to congratulate Byron.

The parade of drivers visiting Victory Lane included seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a former teammate at Hendrick Motorsports and now co-owner of Legacy Motor Club.

But to Byron, Johnson was always something more.

“This guy was my hero,” Byron said after his win. “Literally every Sunday I had his diecast cars in my room and just dreamed about what it would be like to be in his shoes.”

As Johnson congratulated Byron on Monday, he leaned in and reminded Byron of an earlier encounter.

“I literally filled his trick-or-treating bag on Halloween when he was a kid at my house and he told me that someday he was going to be my teammate,” Johnson told NBC Sports of what he said to Byron.

Although Johnson finished 28th Monday, the two-time Daytona 500 winner beamed at seeing Byron win this event for the first time.

“This race is life-changing and for William to experience this warms me up inside, makes me feel good for him,” Johnson said.

On a team with the sport’s most popular driver (Chase Elliott) and arguably this generation’s best racer (Kyle Larson), Byron stands out for what he’s done on the track. His seven victories since last year are more than Larson, Elliott and Bowman have combined in that time.

That's a long way from the teen Williams saw race. But Byron quickly turned into a winner.

“Everybody said he had natural talent,” said Dana Byron, after having a picture with her son and the Daytona 500 trophy. “He caught on so quickly (in Legends cars) that by a couple of months in, he was, like, beating everybody. At first he wasn’t and then he just kept studying and studying and practicing.”

That was a trait that Williams saw of Byron.

“He puts in the time and effort to be great,” Williams said. “A lot of drivers don’t do that.”

NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500
NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500

2024 Daytona 500 results: Byron wins, earns first playoff spot

William Byron won the Daytona 500 and took the first spot in the Cup playoffs.

Byron’s rise to the Truck Series saw him win seven races as a rookie but fail to make the championship race when an engine failure in the next-to-last race kept him from a chance at a title. He moved to the Xfinity Series in 2017, driving for JR Motorsports and won the championship.

His rise was impressive but still left questions.

“The talent is one thing, but then the race craft and the work ethic and all these other things that come along with 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,” Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon said in Victory Lane.

“(But) I had my questions about it myself. I’ve seen him in the Trucks do extraordinary things. I saw him in Xfinity do extraordinary things. But when you get to the Cup level, this is the ultimate and it’s very, very challenging and the competition is great. But he stepped up in every way.”

While Gordon made the No. 24 car famous for his four championships and 93 career wins, Byron is making the number his own.

“The 24 is always going to be very, very special to me,” Gordon said. “But what I loved the most is seeing him make it his number and building that fan base.”

Monday night, Byron took a moment to reflect about his path to winning the Daytona 500.

“It's pretty crazy,” he said. “I just think back to the desire I had to compete and race, and that was unmatched I feel like from anyone else. I wanted it so bad because I never grew up around it, but it was something that I always loved.

“I think that desire has kind of always fueled me more than anything. I want it for no other reason than it's just my passion.”