Perhaps the most intense competition in all of racing is that between the two drivers employed by the same Formula 1 team. The ultimate measuring stick to evaluate the driving skills of one of those competitors is to compare how often he out qualifies and how often he finishes higher than his own teammate. If that were the case in NASCAR, William Byron and Alex Bowman would have a tall order in front of them going into the 2021 season.
One thing the two young drivers have going for them is the fact that they drive for powerful Hendrick Motorsports. But a downside to that for both could very well be the fact that, if they are to be judged based on their performance compared to teammates, the other two drivers piloting Chevrolets for that organization are considered among the most talented in NASCAR.
HMS driver Chase Elliott will enter the upcoming season as the defending NASCAR Cup Series champion. Clearly after the recent retirement of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, the driver of the No. 9 machine is now regarded as the standard bearer of the company.
Please also consider reading “Jonathan Davenport back to being … Jonathan Davenport?“
And more, highly sought after Kyle Larson just joined the four-car operation headed by Charlotte businessman Rick Hendrick. While his past record in NASCAR may not seem to be indicative of greatness, many believe he got more out of his equipment while driving for Chip Ganassi Racing than he should have.
Again, the comparisons to teammates for Byron and Bowman will be difficult. But a potential benefit of having such highly regarded teammates is that the two lesser known drivers will be able to fly somewhat under the radar.
Both of these young drivers have been given great opportunities, but at the same time, have also been placed in high pressure situations. The numbers placed on the doors of their rides certainly signify the intense nature of their circumstances. The numbers 24 and 48 are among the most iconic in NASCAR and all of racing. Combined, those two car numbers have won eleven NASCAR Cup Series championships for Hendrick Motorsports with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in the respective drivers seats.
Byron immediately stepped into the No. 24 when he entered Cup Series competition following Jeff Gordon’s retirement and a brief stint with that number by Chase Elliott. This is a number fans and media alike expect to see running up front in NASCAR races. However, that has not been the case over the past three seasons.
Since Byron assumed the No. 24 Chevrolet in 2018, he has scored only one win(Daytona in August of 2020). And more, there have been only nine top-5 finishes in 108 starts at the sport’s top level. Consider too that this team was led by highly renowned and championship proven crew chief Chad Knaus in 2020. It would seem fair to say that this driver and car have underperformed to this point.
On a positive note, though, the 23-year-old driver from Charlotte did finish out this past season with four top-10 results over the final six races.
Byron will enter 2021 with a crew chief who previously guided him to success. Rudy Fugle has made his way to HMS following years of success leading a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series effort for Kyle Busch Motorsports. In 2016, this driver/crew chief duo combined for seven wins in that series on their way to a second-place finish in the final standings.
But after already having completed three seasons driving in the NASCAR Cup Series for HMS, having one of the greatest crew chiefs in the history of the sport, and now being reunited with a pit boss who has led him to previous success, there can’t be any excuses left for William Byron. According the ‘Team Chart‘ on the popular Jayski.com website, his contract with HMS runs through the end of the 2022 season, but even with that in mind, he must perform better this year than has been the case up to this point.
Few drivers have been charged with taking on such a daunting task as has Alex Bowman. In 2018, he took over the ride once occupied by what was possibly the sport’s most popular figure ever when he sat in the driver’s seat of the No. 88 previously occupied by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. And now, he has moved to the car number of a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion as he fills the vacancy left in the No. 48 by retiring Jimmie Johnson.
Like Byron, Bowman joined HMS in 2018 as a full-time driver. Since then, he has scored two wins in 108 starts as well as earning 16 top-5 and 41 top-10 results. In that same time period, Chase Elliott has scored eleven victories, 37 top-5s, 58 top-10s, and a championship to carry out that comparison between teammates in similar equipment.
Unlike Byron, however, Bowman does not have as much job security regarding his future in that his contract is set to expire at the end of the upcoming season.
Bowman began the 2020 season in strong manner has he collected a pre-pandemic win at Auto Club Speedway then earned a runner-up finish in the first post-shutdown race at Darlington Raceway. However, inconsistency marked the 27-year-old driver’s middle stretch of the season. But like his young teammate, the Tucson, AZ native finished strong by achieving nine top-10s over the course of the final twelve Cup races.
He very much needs to carry that type of momentum into the 2021 campaign and then maintain it throughout in order to not only keep pace with his more high-profile teammates but also assure HMS management that he is the man for the job when it comes to steering the No. 48 machine.
Please also consider reading “Will Kyle Larson prove his worth in championship equipment?“
Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson are most likely going to dominate the headlines as far as Hendrick Motorsports in concerned in 2021. With that in mind, William Byron and Alex Bowman must improve on their performances of the past three seasons in order to hold their place at the grown-ups table going forward.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
Respond to this piece on Twitter –> @RichardAllenIDR
or on Facebook –> InsideCircleTrack/Facebook