Some statements are so obvious that they don’t really need to be said, but they are often said anyway. Those comments are often said to be “as plain as the nose on your face” when made. The statement that William Byron is approaching a pivotal season in his racing career fits that description as the young Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver heads into his second full-time campaign as the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
The entire Hendrick Motorsports organization saw its share of struggles in 2018 as only one of its drivers(Chase Elliott) won a Cup Series race. Still, however, three of the four HMS pilots qualified for the Playoffs as Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, and Alex Bowman went into the final ten races with at least a so-called “puncher’s chance” of collecting the sport’s top prize. But on the other hand, Byron was unable to make the initial cut that placed sixteen drivers into the championship hunt.
One has to scroll all the way down to the 23rd position to find Byron’s name in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings. The 21-year-old driver did not score a single top-5 finish in 2018 and managed just four top-10 results over the course of the 36-race campaign. This coming after a season in which he won the NASCAR Xfinity Series crown in 2017.
Those lackluster results placed him ahead of only six other drivers who completed the entire season’s worth of races. And more, Byron did not compare well against his teammates in a down year for HMS. The aforementioned Bowman, also in his first full year with the power house team, earned three top-5 and 11 top-10 finishes along with a pole for the Daytona 500.
But a major step has been taken to improve Byron’s lot as the 2019 season approaches. Chad Knaus has been moved from Johnson’s No. 48 team to take charge of the No. 24 effort and guide the young driver through the course of the long season.
As is well known, Knaus brings plenty of credentials with him to his new situation. He and Johnson combined for seven Cup Series titles and more than 80 wins at the sport’s top level. The head-strong team leader is certainly one of the sport’s most successful crew chiefs of all time.
And while Knaus’s arrival offers hope for Byron, it also places great pressure on the young driver. If his performance does not improve in the upcoming season, few observers are going to blame the crew chief for the team’s lagging efforts. So in a sense, the change at the helm of this ship could prove to be somewhat of a double-edged sword for the young pilot.
This is not to say that William Byron has to go into the final weekend of 2019 at Homestead-Miami Speedway as one of the remaining four drivers with a chance to win the championship for his season to be called a success. Further, he does not have to win any certain number of races, or even any races at all, to push aside the doubters. But there almost certainly needs to be some improvement in the results for the No. 24 to keep the naysayers quiet.
It’s easy to say that another year of seasoning in the Xfinity Series would have served this driver well. But in this era of high expense in racing that calls for sponsors and other entities to make many of the calls as to who will drive which car, the luxury of more time is not always allowed for.
Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had decided to step aside as drivers over the previous two years at Hendrick Motorsports and replacements for them had to be named. It was believed by most that Byron would some day take the wheel of an HMS Cup Series car and the openings were there going into the 2018 season. Sponsors putting forth the amount of money they now have to dole out to back a NASCAR effort are likely going to want to build ad campaigns around a particular driver and not wait for someone to just fill a seat for a year or two while the “real” driver gets more experience at a lower level.
In other words, if Byron was going to drive in the Cup Series for Hendrick, the time had come.
The story of Byron’s arrival at the top level bears striking similarity to that of reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano.
Tony Stewart had vacated the No. 20 car at Joe Gibbs Racing to form a partnership with Gene Haas to create Stewart-Haas Racing. Logano was probably not ready for that move but the move had to be made and he was placed in one of the sport’s most recognizable rides at a very young age. But unlike Byron, Logano did not have to wait a year before getting one of NASCAR’s top crew chiefs as Greg Zipadelli was already sitting atop the No. 20 team’s pit box at the time.
As has been well documented, the time at JGR for the driver then known as “Sliced Bread” did not live up to expectations. He did win races, but not at the clip most observers expected.
But Logano has shown that a driver pushed to the Cup Series at too early of an age can still succeed given the right situation. The move from JGR to Penske Racing has made all the difference for the Connecticut native and ultimately led to the 2018 MENCS championship.
The question to be answered for Byron is whether or not he can turn his career in the same direction as that of the current champ. The chances of finding lightning in a bottle as Logano did by landing at Penske at just the right time are far less likely than they were even just those few short years ago as sponsorship agreements are seemingly even harder to come by. So if Byron is to succeed, it will likely have to be at Hendrick.
Can Byron eventually flourish in the Cup Series? Only time will tell that tale. However, there is an example out there that it can be done.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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