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Liberty University joins William Byron in celebrating his first NASCAR Cup Series win

Liberty University junior online student and NASCAR driver William Byron raises his arms in Victory Lane after his first Cup Series triumph Saturday night at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. (Photos by © 2020 Hendrick Motorsports, LLC)

At the end of the first week of classes for the fall semester at Liberty University, the excitement for a new school year continued when William Byron, a junior business communications student at Liberty, celebrated his first NASCAR Cup Series win on Saturday night at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway — driving the Liberty University No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE.

“It was pretty cool to have Liberty on the car this past weekend and even Coach Freeze reached out to me and was excited for us,” Byron said of Liberty Head Football Coach Hugh Freeze. “Those things are really special and hopefully we can continue to carry that into the playoffs.”

Byron’s long-awaited and dramatic triumph sealed his second playoff berth in his three seasons in NASCAR’s most elite level of competition.

Maneuvering through two on-track incidents in the final 10 laps, Byron took the lead coming to the white flag and ultimately crossed the finish line first in overtime in the regular-season finale.

“It’s really amazing,” Byron said. “I’m just really blessed that things worked out the way that they did because at Daytona a lot of things can go wrong. So for us to have that opportunity at the end of the race and to be up front, it’s one that you’ve got to capitalize on.”

On campus this week, students, staff, and alumni shared their reactions.

Emily Wildman is a Liberty senior and an avid NASCAR fan.

“I was practically jumping out of my seat the whole time because it’s kind of a breakthrough thing when someone is racing in the Cup Series and gets their first win,” said Emily Wildman, a senior history student who watched the race on television. “It’s really special to see Liberty being represented on a national stage, and also to see someone who is not afraid to talk about their faith and especially being a Christian in NASCAR.”

She said a highlight of her time at Liberty was when she joined fellow students on a Liberty bus to see Byron race in September 2017 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That season, he won seven races to clinch NASCAR’s Xfinity Series points championship and Rookie of the Year honors.

Byron is the 21st driver to capture his first Cup Series checkered flag at Daytona. At 22, he is the same age that NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Jeff Gordon, a Convocation guest in 2017, won his first race in the No. 24 car.

“I grew up as a Jeff Gordon fan, so to have William Byron running his No. 24 car … and to continue the legacy is thrilling to watch,” Wildman said.

Byron (left) is pushed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman in the regular-season-ending race.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, who drove the No. 24 car for two seasons before Byron took the wheel, gave Byron the push he needed to get to Victory Lane en route to a runner-up finish.

“It was pretty awesome to have a 1-2 finish for Hendrick, and we are excited about what’s ahead for us,” said Byron, whose second consecutive top-5 showing and eighth top-10 finish of the year was a sweet reward for his perseverance. “The lessons that I’ve learned going through the Cup Series in the last two-and-a-half years have really applied to the last couple of races. Dealing with adversity and pressure are all something that you learn through the experiences that you have. This is the time of the year that it really comes down to high-pressure moments and you have to thrive in those situations. I feel really confident and that we’ve kind of turned the corner and we’re poised to do good things.”

His rise through the NASCAR ranks has won Byron a multitude of fans, including many alumni and students at Liberty. Liberty has supported Byron as a sponsor since 2014 when he drove late model stock cars, and the university has been a 12-race primary sponsor since his 2018 Cup Series debut with Hendrick Motorsports. Liberty announced a two-year agreement last September to extend the sponsorship for 12 Cup races in 2020 and 2021.

Byron celebrates his historic win with a spectacular burnout before a sizeable crowd at Daytona late Saturday night.

“Liberty University and William Byron pulled me into the sport,” said Andrew Napierkowski (’05, ’16). “Congrats to Byron, (Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick) Hendrick and Liberty. It was a rough few years watching him learn and struggle sometimes, but that was a great win under some intense moments and pressure. As an LU grad, I love it even more that he got the win with the red flames on the car. I look forward to seeing him grab a few more W’s in the playoffs.”

Abby Bowman (’20) introduced herself to Byron during a freshman meet-and-greet when he was a residential student in 2016 and, during his transition to the Cup Series, had a couple opportunities to interview him as a staff member of the Liberty Champion. She shared his enthusiasm over his first trip to Victory Lane.

“Honestly, watching him race alongside his other Hendrick Motorsports teammates and watching him get the first win at the Cup Series … made me ecstatic,” Bowman said. “It was good to be able to put that personality and face to a connection to my school. Now that he’s going to the NASCAR playoffs, the Liberty University car will be even more in the national spotlight and he will be able to represent Liberty as a Champion for Christ even more.”

Liberty will be the primary sponsor for Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, where Byron will start the 10-race playoff opener running a throw-back red, white, and blue paint scheme honoring HMS teammate Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR points champion who raced with the same design in winning his fourth All-Star competition, July 15 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.

“I’m excited to run that with Liberty on the car and hopefully, we can have a great run at Darlington,” Byron said. “The guys have worked extremely hard and they’ve been putting out a great effort in getting the cars prepared. Hopefully, going into this next weekend, we can carry that momentum and have a mistake-free race.”

After Darlington, the playoffs will continue at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 12 followed by Bristol on Sept. 19.

The HMS pit crew, emblazoned with Liberty University suits, run out to celebrate the win as Byron burns out on the track.

Despite being in the playoffs, Byron will continue his studies through Liberty’s online programs, and is targeting a 2021 graduation.

“I feel like this year has gone by really fast,” he said. “The online schooling has been perfect because of all that is going on in the world. It has been, for a lot of students, really seamless that Liberty has an online platform that makes things really easy with all of the schedules that come up.”

Byron, who signed a two-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports on Tuesday, said he looks forward to continuing his relationship with the university, potentially even after completing his degree.

“I’ve been with Liberty for a long time, and I’ve learned a lot about the school and all the things it has to offer,” he said. “The school itself is growing so much, the football team and all of the things on the athletics side and academics side. It seems like it changes every time that I go up there, with more things being built.”