William Byron and John Hunter Nemechek are representing the Charlotte area in this season’s NASCAR Truck Series.
They don’t really know each other, but they have a lot in common. They are both products of local private schools and, as significantly, had breakout seasons in 2015 that have led them to Friday’s season-opening NextEra 250 at Daytona International Speedway.
Nemechek, 19, a Davidson Day graduate who is entering his third season in the Truck series, won his first career race last September at Chicagoland Speedway.
Byron, 18, is a senior at Charlotte Country Day and won NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East championship as a rookie in 2016.
Beyond that, however, their paths diverge. Nemechek was born in Mooresville to a racing family. His father Joe is a longtime NASCAR driver who was still racing in 2015. His uncle John – whom John Hunter was named after – was killed in a crash during a Truck race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1997. John Hunter Nemechek was three-weeks-old the first time his dad took him to a race.
Byron has been racing for just four years, but he seems to be in the process of skyrocketing through the sport. Growing up in the Foxcroft neighborhood in southeast Charlotte, he only became interested in racing by playing online. He convinced his father Bill to take him to a race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway when he was 7.
That hooked William, who started out in a Legends car and immediately won a national championship in 2013. He’s driven late models for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports and was the N.C. rookie of the year in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series.
Now, after winning the K&N title last season – and winning four races while doing so – Byron is taking an even bigger leap to the Truck series, where he will drive the No. 9 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
As he has already done in his young career, he doesn’t have much experience in racing the heavier, faster trucks. He’s only driven in one Truck race before, wrecking early at Phoenix last November. And his only experience at Daytona came last week in an Auto Racing Club of America (ARCA) race, in which he finished second.
“I’m just going to go out there and do it,” said Byron, who admits his racing schedule has contributed to his falling behind on his school work (although he said he is on pace to graduate in the spring). “There’s no real way to prepare for Daytona, other than what you’ve seen on TV. But that ARCA race, it was faster and more intense than I thought.”
Nemechek has a couple of years’ head start on Byron in the Truck series. His Mooresville-based NEMCO Motorsports, which had just 10 employees last season, added a few to the payroll in the off-season. So it remains a small team, but Nemechek said it has everything it needs to be competitive.
“I’m in the shop six or seven days a week, from 7 a.m. until you’re so tired you can’t do it any more,” said Nemechek. “But I wouldn’t say we’re struggling in this series. We feel like we’ve got a good program and we have all the resources we need. We just need to use them the right way so we can run up front every week.”
Under the watchful eye of Kyle Busch – and by extension Joe Gibbs Racing -- Byron might have a leg up already on Nemechek in finding a ride on the sport’s next levels, the Xfinity and Sprint Cup series.
But Nemechek said he’ll keep driving his No. 8 Chevy and let his results dictate his future.
“To be in Xfinity and Cup, you’ve to be on a big team,” said Nemechek. “You need a lot of resources and engineering to get to the next step. We’ve got a great Truck program. But we’re going to need to sign with somebody.”
What to watch for
▪ The championship race is wide open after last season’s title winner, Erik Jones, moved up to the Xfinity Series
▪ Rookie Rico Abreu, who recenty won the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Okla., will race for Thor Motorsports. Abreu, who is four-feet-four, won on a K&N East race last season -- only a few months after he had first raced a stock car.
▪ Truck races will have an automatic caution every 20 minutes this season, the equivalent of a timeout. It will break up longer runs, but should provide more strategy for the mostly young drivers in the series.
▪ The trucks (and Xfinity series) are going to the Chase postseason format. Eight drivers will qualify, with two drivers eliminated after each three-race round, leaving four to run for the championship at Homestead. David Scott