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Remarkable year for NASCAR star William Byron ends — or begins? — at Snowball Derby

It took me 20 minutes of wandering the gloriously packed Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, to come to the conclusion that was intuitive to everyone other than me:

He’s not here.

Not in the infield, where calloused hands are lifting car hoods and revving engines, where haulers are tightly filed into rows like Tetris pieces.

Not in the campgrounds, where bearded men are drinking beer and breathing stories and cigarette smoke.

Not in the grandstands along the front-stretch, either, where the few-hundred fans on hand are preparing to watch one of the several races leading into Sunday’s Snowball Derby: the main event of this anticipated weekend, the place where the best short-track drivers in the country descend every year — the day that is widely considered the “Super Bowl of short-track racing.”

He was nowhere to be found.

That’s because, to his dismay, William Byron had an end-of-year awards ceremony to attend.

“It was fine,” Byron said of the ceremony Friday, once I finally tracked him down. A few hours before, he was in Nashville, sitting alongside the movers and shakers and stars in the top racing sanctioning body in America — a one-night extravaganza for people celebrating the present and future of NASCAR.

All the while, though, he was itching to be here, at Five Flags Speedway, instead. He admitted with a smile: “The banquet’s only fun for the winner.”

Perhaps that’s all you need to know about Byron in order to explain his rapid rise as one of the country’s top racers: The season, in a sense, doesn’t end for him. Nor does he want it to.

NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron (24) celebrates in Victory Lane at Darlington Raceway. David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports
NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron (24) celebrates in Victory Lane at Darlington Raceway. David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte native and Charlotte Country Day alum finished with a series-best six Cup wins en route to his best Cup Series season in 2023. The 26-year-old driver, who just wrapped up his sixth season in Cup, finished third on the year overall — making the Championship 4 but falling just short of the Cup championship at Phoenix Raceway in November.

And how does he plan on punctuating that remarkable season? (Or how does he plan to start a new season, springing off the last in an attempt to reach new heights?)

To keep going.

To keep finding challenges.

To hustle to the Snowball Derby — one of the toughest challenges of them all.

“I love challenges, I love to be tested,” Byron said. “I feel like this is a great chance to race against the best short-track drivers, and short-track racing is definitely a staple in our sport, and it’s something I want to be good and successful at. So when I look at the list of winners, that’s all you really need to know how prestigious this race is. It’s one of the races where, no matter what discipline you’re from, any background — anyone can win it.

“It’s a real challenge. I enjoy the challenge of it more than anything.”

Mar 12, 2023; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron (24) before the United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 12, 2023; Avondale, Arizona, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver William Byron (24) before the United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

What makes Five Flags Speedway so special

Byron is the headliner, but he isn’t the only star from the NASCAR ranks in this year’s Snowball Derby lineup.

Of the 52 drivers on the entry list — which was trimmed down to 30 cars during Friday night’s qualifying — five are known well by Cup Series fans: Byron, Erik Jones, Carson Hocevar, Noah Gragson and Ryan Preece.

The Super Late Model short-track event is embarking on its 56th year on Sunday.

“’All roads lead to the Snowball Derby’ is what we say here,” said Tim Bryant, whose family has been organizing this event for the past few decades.

The Snowball Derby has been held annually since 1968. In the early days, big-time NASCAR drivers such as Bobby Allison and Donny Allison, Red Farmer and Darrel Waltrip, and others, started competing in this race, and the community loved seeing their local racers compete against the nation’s most well-known.

Derek Thorn celebrates after winning the 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 4, 2022. Snowball Derby 2022 1
Derek Thorn celebrates after winning the 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway Sunday, December 4, 2022. Snowball Derby 2022 1

Forty years later, and that largely still holds up, Bryant said.

“Now the trend is for younger guys to make their marks,” said Bryant, wearing a black shirt and blue jeans and an easy, track promoter’s smile. “Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, John Hunter Nemechek — all previous winners. Christian Eckes. Noah Gragson. I think the fact that this race is hyped up as home to the best of the best short track racers in the country, sprinkled with some NASCAR stars, that’s kind of what it makes it appealing to the fans.”

Byron, despite the successes he’s turned in, is still young, technically. It was just over a decade ago when he began racing at 14 years old, developing his skills on iRacing before getting on track in 2014 for JR Motorsports in a Late Model car. He then won a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship, then moved up to the Truck Series, then won an Xfinity Series championship before making his Cup debut at 20 years old for Hendrick Motorsports in 2018.

Nov 18, 2017; Homestead, FL, USA; NASCAR Xfinity Series driver William Byron (9) celebrates winning the NASCAR Xfinity Championship after the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 18, 2017; Homestead, FL, USA; NASCAR Xfinity Series driver William Byron (9) celebrates winning the NASCAR Xfinity Championship after the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

But still, 2023’s success was a long time coming.

“You’re right, he just came off of what I believe has been his best year in the Cup Series,” Bryant said of Byron. “And William hasn’t told me this first hand, but I’m thinking the amount of short-track racing he’s doing ... I think it’s making him a better Cup driver.”

His crew chief and team owner this weekend, Anthony Campi, certainly agrees with that assessment.

“He’s just so technical about everything he does,” Campi said of his driver. “He just dissects everything, from how everything is placed in the cockpit, to how he wants everything set up. His feel for being in a car every weekend for the past decade. The better he gets at it, he can just adapt anywhere he goes.”

He added: “Just his passion for the sport, and his passion for being better. That’s what will probably get him a Cup championship next year.”

What’s in William Byron’s future?

Byron will drive the No. 24 car on Sunday, just like he does on Cup Sundays for Hendrick Motorsports. He qualified 14th and will start in the seventh row — behind names like Gragson and Truck Series star Ty Majeski.

He’ll be looking for his first Snowball Derby win in his fourth start.

Byron said he doesn’t like to rank wins, but he said a Snowball Derby title would “be up there” with his favorite Cup wins.

Part of that is an homage to this event, this racetrack, this place where so many greats decide to descend each year.

And part of that is a result of the drive of Byron — the driver whose season never ends.