If a driver’s rookie year is for learning the NASCAR Cup Series cars and tracks, his second year is for learning how to race: How to race both the veterans as well as the inexperienced and underfunded drivers; how to race a changing racetrack; and how to race at the front of the pack, which offers a new set of challenges.
In many ways, it’s the second year that shows what a driver is made of. The other drivers know his strengths and weaknesses and won’t cut him as much slack for mistakes. If the equipment is good, there should be gains — laps led if not wins, better numbers, more competitive races. William Byron checked every box on that list in 2019, serving notice that he’s a threat to win races this year.
Byron’s sophomore season featured his first top-5 finishes (five of them), his first poles (five of those, too), 13 top 10s, over 200 laps led and a playoff berth. His average finish rose from 22.1 to 14.9, and he finished 11th in points, up from 23rd in 2018. Those are stellar numbers in terms of improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 for any driver.
Hendrick Motorsports has struggled somewhat over the last two or three seasons — particularly after the introduction of the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 racecar — but the organization showed improvement in the second half of the 2019 season. The direction of the team seems to be positive, and it features three young drivers in Byron, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman who have both talent and time to develop. Byron is just 22 and is a few years away from reaching his racing prime. That’s exciting for this team — and the driver.
It doesn’t hurt that Byron is paired with veteran crew chief Chad Knaus, who can milk every ounce of speed out of a racecar as well as out of its driver. Knaus is a good coach for a young driver; he brought out the best in Jimmie Johnson, winning seven titles with Johnson before moving to Byron and the No. 24 team in 2019. He expects his driver to work through what the car is doing and communicate that effectively with him during practices and races. Knaus certainly brought out the best in Byron last
season, and with a year of experience together, their communication will only improve.
No major changes are on the horizon for Byron this year. Sponsors Axalta, Liberty University, Hertz and UniFirst are all slated to return. That’s a vote of confidence in Byron’s potential as well.
So what does Hendrick’s youngest driver need to do in 2020? He can start with leading more laps. He led at least one lap in 18 races last year, but led more than 10 laps only eight times. If he can double his laps led and lead laps in more races, he’ll see his top 10s and top 5s improve. The more he runs up front, the more he’ll learn about how to stay there.
And if Byron can string together several top 5s, he could come even closer to his first win than he did during the 2019 season. Look at teammate Bowman’s first win: In the seven weeks leading up to it, Bowman finished second three races in a row, and it looked like a win was just a matter of time. Byron doesn’t have that look quite yet, but he does appear poised to make that next step.
If Byron continues on an upward trajectory, he should easily make the playoffs, even without a win — barring an unusual number of different winners during the season. And based on his 2019 playoff performance, he could go deep into the postseason. Don’t write him into the championship race on your bracket just yet, but don’t write him off, either.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 45/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)