Two years ago, 18-year-old William Byron was starting his first season in a NASCAR touring division, entering the Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports after winning the 2015 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title. One year ago, Byron was stinging after a fifth-place finish in the CWTS standings. Despite winning a series-high seven races, Byron suffered an engine failure in the final race before Homestead and missed the cut to compete for the title. But the CWTS Rookie of the Year was moving up to the XFINITY Series with JR Motorsports as a Hendrick Motorsports development driver. This time he didn’t miss the cut. Byron won both Rookie of the Year honors and the series title still 11 days shy of his 20th birthday.
This year, Byron will try for his third Rookie of the Year title in three years, this time on NASCAR’s biggest stage. He takes over the No. 24 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports following the departure of Kasey Kahne.
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Byron carries a lot on his slight shoulders this season. He’s been a title contender at every level, so he’ll be expected to be one at this level as well. But the Cup Series is a massive step up from XFINITY, and Hendrick Motorsports is in transition as well.
HMS as an organization was behind the curve last season. Despite sending three teams to the playoffs, HMS didn’t look like the organization that ruled the series for years. Chevrolet’s switch to the Camaro helps; the SS was behind both Ford and Toyota in the wind tunnel, while the Camaro has posted more promising results.
The team continues its shift away from the established veterans it featured behind the wheel. Jeff Gordon retired after 2015, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran his last race in the fall. With Kahne moving on as well, what was a team of veterans is down to just one. That’s a lot of uncharted territory for a team to sail into at once.
That’s not to say Byron is being thrown into the abyss. The remaining veteran is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, and third-year driver Chase Elliott will also be a valuable resource for Byron. Alex Bowman has a bit of experience as well, though 2018 will be his first full season with a top-tier team. That’s a good group for the youngster to lean on and learn from.
Byron also has veteran crew chief Darian Grubb on top of the pit box. Grubb is a master of strategy who has won with every driver he’s worked with on a full-time basis and also has a pair of victories as a substitute for Johnson in his first stint at HMS. He’s the best in the game at stretching fuel mileage.
Liberty University, Byron’s sponsor in the Truck and XFINITY Series, sticks with him, and longtime Hendrick sponsor Axalta will also be on the hood for some races. All the pieces are there, with the cars still being the biggest question mark. If the Camaros are more competitive, Byron will be a playoff threat, though that’s a tall order for a rookie.
Byron has talent, he’s paired with an excellent crew chief, and he has the benefit of working with one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport. He should be good for a few top-5 finishes, but don’t count on him to win any races … yet.