NASCAR: Consumers Energy 400-Practice

Aug 9, 2019; Brooklyn, MI, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron (24) looks on during practice for the Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Second-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron shared the news this week that his longtime sponsor and current learning institution, Liberty University, will back him for at least another two years in NASCAR's premier series. And it seemed fitting, as Byron has been a stellar student in his first version of stock car racing's ultimate final exam -- the playoffs.

The 21-year old NASCAR star/college student arrived at Richmond (Va.) Raceway for Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) in the midst of the best statistical showing of his brief career. And he seems to be peaking at just the right time of the season. His seventh-place finish in the Las Vegas playoff opener last weekend moved him up to a career-high ninth place in the Cup standings with two races -- Richmond and the Charlotte Roval -- left to determine which 12 of the 16 playoff drivers advance to Round 2.

"Everybody over there (Liberty University) has been really instrumental in my career and especially Hendrick Motorsports and kind of working with their SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) team and the development of their race car,'' Byron said of the sponsorship extension. "It's been really cool. Obviously, my studies with them (Liberty) have been a critical part of that, too."

Byron has certainly proven to be a quick learner under the tutelage of his new crew chief, Chad Knaus, a-seven-time Cup championship winner with Byron's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

The pairing has immediately paid off. Byron earned the first top-5 finishes of his young career -- a runner-up at the Daytona summer race followed by a fourth-place showing at two of the toughest venues on the schedule -- Pocono and Indianapolis.

His 10 top-10 finishes through the opening 27 races are more than double what he had in his 2018 Rookie of the Year season. He's had top-10s in the two races leading into Richmond, giving him some vital playoff momentum.

And for good measure, he has also earned a Hendrick Motorsports team-high four pole positions. Only Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick has more (five).

Besides the obvious statistical push for the playoffs, Byron's work this season has given him confidence and every reason to feel his first Cup race trophy is simply a matter of when, not if.

The 2017 Xfinity Series champion was asked about his unique background on Friday and he conceded it may not be so "unique" for long. He began iRacing before getting an opportunity to test a car on the track, and said he is confident there may be another driver who emerges from that background soon.

"I mean, there a ton of really talented people on iRacing,'' Byron said. "I still go on there quite a bit and race. I didn't go in there this weekend for Richmond, but in general, I'm on there quite a bit and there are a lot of really talented guys on there.

"I don't know specifically one person, per say, that would need the opportunity. But I think if there was some way we could get guys in cars to test maybe just one time to see how they would do in comparison to other race car drivers, I think that would be cool. I think it would be a neat thing.

"I don't know how they could pull that off, but that's kind of how I got my start. I was just testing a car one time and going against people that raced real cars before and I did pretty well. So I think that would be a good start.''

It has worked out well for Byron, who finds himself in solid position to advance to the next round of the playoffs barring a poor showing at Richmond. He was 13th at the 7/8-mile track earlier this year and confirmed that should a win not be in the cards this week, stage points in the race are extremely valuable. He earned points in both Stage 1 and Stage 2 at Las Vegas last weekend.

He trails eighth-place Kyle Larson by four points and has a one-point edge on 10th-place Ryan Blaney. He's seven points up on 12th-place Aric Almirola.

"It's critical for us,'' Byron said. "I don't know the points exactly, but ninth place on back (in the standings) has close to the same amount of points based on wins and everything. It's easy to kind of jump up there with some good stages and a good finish.

"We just have to try to do that this weekend.''

--By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.