The similarities are remarkable.
William Byron will start the 2019 Coca-Cola 600 from the pole position on Sunday as he seeks his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win driving for Hendrick Motorsports. Despite having noteworthy credentials coming into his current opportunity, there have been some who have questioned whether the 21-year-old driver should even be where he is during his first year-and-a-half in the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Poor finishes were somewhat the norm for Byron during his rookie campaign as he would prove to be the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to miss the NASCAR Playoffs ultimately finishing in the 23rd position of the final series standings of 2018. The No. 24 team only managed four top-10 results in the 36 points-paying events on last year’s MENCS schedule.
At about this time of the season in 1994, the same type of statements regarding whether or not 22-year-old Jeff Gordon deserved to be in the ride he had been handed were being made. During his rookie effort in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 the young hot shoe with impressive credentials in his rear view mirror had only managed a 14th place finish in the 1993 NASCAR Winston Cup Series standings. During that campaign numerous crashes and other failures to finish had befallen the team and their young driver.
However, Gordon placed his HMS Chevrolet on the pole for the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 during the Memorial Day weekend at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The ‘Rainbow Warrior’ went on to quiet many of the naysayers by winning that prestigious race and showing that he could indeed live up to expectations with a championship caliber organization.
Compared against its own standards, HMS has not performed at a high level over the past couple of seasons with the exception of Chase Elliott’s four wins. Many of those high standards were established by Jeff Gordon after he began what would eventually become a run of dominance throughout the latter half of the 1990’s and beyond.
Can William Byron now begin the task of establishing a new set of high standards by mimicking the accomplishments of the previous driver in the No. 24?
As stated above, Byron has put himself in a position to repeat history by earning a front row starting spot for Sunday’s 600-mile endurance test. A win in that crown jewel event would go a long way toward showing his naysayers that he does indeed belong in the ride he has been given.
Granted, there would still be a very, very long way to go before the Charlotte native could fully be compared with one of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history. However, the road to greatness has to begin somewhere, just as it began in almost these very same circumstances for Jeff Gordon back in 1994.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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