ThatsRacin

Dale Jr.? Gone. Jeff Gordon, too. NASCAR needs stars. Good thing it has William Byron.

It’s a testament to William Byron that it took all of this – free-falling from 18,000 feet, holding his breath to not pass out, doing loop-de-loops in a fighter jet – to unnerve him even a little bit.

And even then, he really wasn’t unnerved.

After all, when Byron climbed out an F-16 plane on Tuesday afternoon at Daytona Beach International Airport after an hour-long ride with the Thunderbirds – an air demonstration unit of the U.S. Air Force – he easily could have been sick. Yacked on the runway, kissed the ground. Nobody would have been surprised either way, especially not after he pulled 9 G’s.

“The vertical twist – which is basically a loop – where you just see the sun, that was the hardest thing,” Byron, a Charlotte native, said. “Right before the loop, I started to get a little dark and my head was a little light and I just couldn’t really breathe.

“I wasn’t getting too sick ... but you’d look up and you’d start going dark and you see the sun and you’re like, ‘When is this going to end?’”

But panicking isn’t Byron’s style. Still just 20 years old and a student at Liberty University, there’s a calm about the Charlotte Country Day graduate – a quiet confidence, if you will.

That helped during Tuesday’s flight, where he soared to Cape Canaveral and the adjacent NASA Kennedy Space Center, but it’ll also do him good in the long run – which, by the way, starts Sunday.

That’s when Byron will strap into his No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro (the plane he flew in Tuesday had his old No. 7, right under a thin cursive spelling of his name) for the 60th running of the Daytona 500.

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NASCAR driver William Byron, left, took an hour-long flight in a fighter jet on Tuesday, hitting up to 9-G’s at one point. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

“When I was up there, I was like, ‘I can’t complain now,’” Byron said of racing a car. “This thing (the plane) was kicking my butt.”

A timely arrival

Sunday will be Byron’s first NASCAR Cup Series race.

And his arrival couldn’t have come at a better time.

For years, NASCAR has lauded its stars, the personalities well-known to those even tangentially interested in the sport: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart. Those three are gone now, along with plenty of others. And the few who remain, such as seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, don’t have long left.

That’s especially problematic for a sport with declining viewership, declining attendance and an aging fan base. As those stars ease out of the sport, so do the legions who support them. And that exodus is what NASCAR cannot sustain.

The solution is not, as some would suggest, to trot these retired drivers out for ceremonial races. Instead, a new generation of stars must be bred, to draw a new generation of fans.

That’s where Byron comes in. There are ample talented young drivers, headlined by Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, but Byron is different.

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William Byron won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in 2017 in his first and only season in NASCAR’s second division. Terry Renna AP

The man is 20. He’s still taking online religion and statistics classes in between traversing the country for NASCAR. He spent one season each in NASCAR’s two lower divisons, winning one championship, having a shot at another and twice being named Rookie of the Year. Not bad for someone who learned to race on a video game when he was 13.

‘He’s going to go somewhere’

Rick Hendrick, who owns the Hendrick Motorsports team Byron drives for, couldn’t speak highly enough of Byron on Sunday, after he was the fifth-fastest driver overall in qualifying for the Daytona 500.

“Here’s a guy that I’ve tried to groom, and he develops faster than I thought he could,” Hendrick said of Byron. “If you don’t do something with him, someone else is. I mean, he’s going to go somewhere.”

Byron could very easily finish 20th in the Daytona 500. He could also do much better. His potential, and his meteoric rise through the sport, suggest he could help fill the void left by all these departing legends.

But does Byron think about all that, or let the pressure get to him, or get nervous about racing in his first Cup event? If so, he doesn’t let it show – just like he didn’t when he was hanging by two shoulder straps upside down in an airplane.

“The speed and the results are going to come with my confidence,” Byron said. “I’m most confident when I’m in the race car. When I’m in the race car, no matter what year I’m experienced or what other guys have against me, I feel like one of the guys.

“When I’m in the race car, it feels comfortable and natural and I don’t worry about those things. Maybe outside the car when I start to think about all the things I get to do, I start to think about what it means to be at this level.

“But when I’m in the car, it all goes away. I just focus on what I have to do.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks

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