William Byron on life after his Daytona 500 win, his ‘focus face’ and his dangerous bucket list: 12 Questions

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Each week, The Athletic asks the same 12 questions to a different race car driver. Up next: Daytona 500 winner William Byron of Hendrick Motorsports. This interview has been edited for clarity, but the full version is available on the 12 Questions podcast.

1. What is currently the No. 1 thing on your bucket list?

Scuba diving with sharks.

Not just scuba diving, but …

No, with sharks. That would be awesome. I just have to get the nerve to do it. My offseasons have been a little bit boring. I need to find some more adrenaline rushes. So I know (my) boss (Rick Hendrick) is probably going to hear that and say, “This is great.”

So would this be an inside-the-cage kind of thing, or like you’re just out in the open water with them?

You gotta go in the open water. A couple of girls I went to high school with scuba dive professionally and scuba dive with sharks. So maybe I can quiz them on what to do or how to start small, maybe.

2. How much media coverage of NASCAR do you consume?

Quite a bit. I’ve gone through different waves of it, where I don’t look at anything on social. Last year, I was very involved in social, looking at all the updates and everything going on in the sport. This year, it’s probably 60 percent of my timeline. I try to mix it in with other sports as well because that’s what I’m into. So I try not to be too consumed by it, but you have to be in the know.

3. Beyond winning, what is the best way to measure success in racing?

Probably top-fives, laps led, average finish. Those are all the things I look at. Just overall consistency. But also, for us drivers, it’s where you line up in the points in the garage (NASCAR puts the haulers in order of points, based on the top-performing car in an organization). That’s always a measuring stick I use: Where are we lined up in the garage?

That’s really interesting, because I just saw this stat from Trey Ryan recently that out of the last 100 races, the car that has led the most laps has only won 39 times.

I saw that. Yeah, there’s so much unpredictability in the races. So many cautions now and most races end with a five- to 10-lap run to the end. So, yeah, it’s crazy.

4. What is an opinion you have about NASCAR that you don’t think is shared by the fans?

The sport is way more sophisticated than what it maybe seems to casual fans. I would say our core fans know that to some degree. But the casual fan, with the “Talladega Nights” references — which a lot of them are true for that racetrack, but in general, our sport is very sophisticated with lots of engineering. That (engineering) is what separates the good from great, but it just maybe isn’t shown as much because the teams are very careful to show it. But there’s a lot of intelligence inside the garage.

5. What is the biggest thing fans don’t realize about what you do for a living?

How much of a grind it is to be traveling so much. Not to pooh-pooh the F1 guys, but they’re talking about 24 weekends a year and how difficult that is. Granted, they’re going to different time zones. But for this garage and the people who work in it, it is a very steep grind throughout the year. I just don’t know if that gets enough credit throughout the sports world, because we have the longest season in sports.

6. This is a question related to a current topic regarding yourself. After the Daytona 500, you’re in victory lane with the cheers, the confetti and then you’re whisked from there to New York and you’re going on this media tour. But at some point, you get back home. You walk in your door, and it’s just back to the house. Is that weird? What’s that like?

It’s the best feeling in the world, honestly, because you get a chance to just get your sanity back a little bit. I’ve slept a lot (after the initial week). It’s just nice to go back to your normal life and know inside that you accomplished something you’re really proud of. And you can just enjoy that on your own.

I enjoy my quiet time and my battery recharges when I’m on my own. I need a certain amount of that to feel fulfilled. So yeah, when I walked in my door and put my stuff down and unpacked, I was like, “Damn, this is pretty cool.”

7. This is a wild-card question. In our first 12 Questions interview we did in 2016, you said: “I’m always thinking to myself and focusing on the race. So when the caution comes out, I realize my mouth is wide open, and my mouth always gets dry. And then I’m reaching for the water bottle.” This is eight years ago now. Have you fixed this, or does that still happen?

So I drive with my tongue out or my mouth wide open. Either one. But I’ve gotten better at it over time. The concentration has peaks and valleys; I don’t just spend the whole time under the green just purely focused. I try to lick my lips and just stay loose, but you can never drink any water under green. So I just get to the next caution and I’m still pretty thirsty. But it’s pretty common for me to have my tongue out when I’m driving. That’s my focus face.

This is going to sound ignorant, but why can you not drink water under green?

You’re too busy with your hands. I use a drink bag system; some guys do actually use the (straw) they can grab inside their helmet. (Martin) Truex uses that, but I’ve never tried it. Maybe I should.

I’ve always done the drink bag and it’s impossible to get that thing — it takes a lot of work to get it up inside the helmet. You’ve got to get the helmet skirt out of the way. It’s a mess.

8. What do you like about the place you grew up? Charlotte, North Carolina.

It’s a very good balance between a lot of different climates. That’s always been an appeal about Charlotte: It’s hot in the summertime, but not super hot. And the wintertime is pretty mild. I like that it has a hometown, small-town vibe that in some ways is expanding. And I just like that people are very friendly and normal. You can have a conversation with anyone. But at the same time, you don’t feel like you have to go out of your way to be super friendly.

William Byron

“It’s the best feeling in the world, honestly,” William Byron says of returning to the normalcy of home after the whirlwind following his Daytona 500 win. (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images)

9. What personality trait are you the most proud of?

I think through decisions. I don’t make instinctive decisions. I don’t make decisions and be like, “Man, I wish I hadn’t done that.” That doesn’t happen. I write a lot — I write out reasons and write out my approach to a race, so the decisions I make, I’m confident in them.

Is this handwritten or do you type on the computer?

Handwritten. I just have a little diary that is about half full from the start of last year. I take notes on my phone, but something about taking notes on your phone isn’t as permanent. Like, it doesn’t register in your head. So I usually write a lot after races or any big things.

I just started doing more of that this year. I hand-write story ideas or stuff in a calendar and it helps stick in your head much better.

It’s kind of a pain to write, but it’s worth it.

10. Which driver would you least like to be stuck with on an elevator?

Gosh, I feel like I’m pretty friendly with everyone. I would say somebody I don’t know yet. I need to get to know SVG (Shane van Gisbergen). So if we were stuck on an elevator right now, it’d be super awkward because we haven’t ever had a conversation. So that would be good to meet him this year and get to know him.

11. What is a run-in you’ve had with a driver that TV or the media missed?

Man, I haven’t had many like that. I feel like all of mine have been pretty public. Way back, me and Zane Smith would get into it a lot in Legend cars. And since then we’ve both matured and we’re actually good friends. But in Legend cars, we were all the time back and forth, and no one knew that. But it’s a good story to tell.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next person. The last one was with Jesse Love. He says: “You are quietly very confident. Were you born with that? Is that something you’ve had to work at? How did you develop the mindset to come to the racetrack and have the confidence that you are the guy to beat?”

That’s a great question. Sometimes, I probably come across more confident than I actually am. But it’s all just internal self-awareness and just knowing where you are in your journey of racing. “Do I feel confident at this track?” A lot of times, that’s just self-reflection no one else knows. But once I get out into the field and get ready for the race, I have a general confidence I’m going to do well or know what my goal is.

The next interview is with (ARCA Menards Series driver) Toni Breidinger. Do you have a question I can ask her?

How do you prepare for going to a racetrack the first time to give yourself confidence before you’re there?



With Daytona 500 win, William Byron has arrived as NASCAR’s next superstar

(Top photo of William Byron before the Las Vegas race in early March: Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

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