CHARLOTTE, N.C. - At Phoenix International Raceway, the next-to-last event in last year's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoff, William Byron's championship hopes exploded when the engine in his No. 9 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota did likewise.
But it wasn't until a week later that Byron felt what he termed the "gut punch" of falling out of the playoff with a championship in his rookie season so close to reality.
Byron won seven races in the Camping World Truck Series last year and was the odds-on favorite entering the playoff-until his engine went sour at Phoenix. This year, Byron hopes to wash away that sour taste with a NASCAR XFINITY Series championship-before he makes the jump in 2018 to the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
With three XFINITY victories this year, all within a five-race stretch in the middle of the season, Byron goes into the playoff as the top seed, with 25 playoffs points, as the playoffs open on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN). His most ardent hope is not to repeat the experience of going to Homestead without a chance to win the championship.
"It was definitely a gut punch going through the final race and not having a chance at it," Byron said on Tuesday during NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoffs Media Day at the Embassy Suites. "I didn't really think about what the championship meant until I saw them celebrating and saw the excitement and what it means to win that.
"Everyone says that, when you lose one, you know how to win it, but I think watching everything unfold and knowing that I wasn't a part of it was definitely the gut punch I needed to try and win this year."
In preparation for his jump to Monster Energy Series next season, Byron has been attending events in the series and getting advice from his future teammates at HMS. But his primary focus is winning the XFINITY title and making up for the Camping World Truck Series championship that eluded him last year.
"Really, the best preparation I can do is run hard and really learn the next seven races," Byron said. "There were a few things out there, whether I was going to run some (Monster Energy Series) this year, but I feel like, really, we're focusing on what we have going on here and trying to win a championship.
"That's what they want me to do, and that's what, really, I want especially after last year and how that went. So definitely want to get redemption and try to win a championship."
Byron is one of four JR Motorsports drivers to qualify for the playoff, along with Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Michael Annett. All four drivers in the organization share information unselfishly, and that should help Byron in his first XFINITY playoff.
"Elliott's been there each week, talking to me about different race tracks and answering each question I have," Byron said. "Same with Justin. I feel like we're all from different experience levels, and we all have our different goals and different strengths.
"I think Justin's been really strong, and Elliot's been really consistent. Each week he's finishing better, I feel like, than all of the regulars. That's been a tough challenge to keep up with him, but we're learning each week, and I think now we've kind of got all of our stuff together and the learning's done.
"The learning curve has progressed enough where we can go and compete for a championship."
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---