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William Byron stormed out of the gate with a dominant win in the opening Chase race, proving he is a strong favorite for the championship, much like Erik Jones was with Kyle Busch Motorsports last season.
Under the leadership of Rudy Fugle, Jones’ championship crew chief from 2015, Byron has surpassed anyone’s expectations and reached some of his potential much faster than many expected. Now locked into the next round of the Chase, the No. 9 team can breathe easy for a couple races while the rest of the field battles to shape the Round of 6.
Jones and Byron have a lot in common. Both have spent time with Kyle Busch Motorsports under the tutelage of Fugle. Both impressed in their rookie seasons, and both have promising futures ahead of them in NASCAR.
But at this point, one stands miles above the other when you compare their rookie seasons. In fact, Byron could be possibly the single best newcomer the Truck Series has seen to date.
Prior to this season, Byron made just a single start at Phoenix International Raceway. After qualifying fifth, the driver of the No. 9 Toyota didn’t even get a chance to show the NASCAR world what he was capable of. He was involved in a lap 6 crash with Cole Custer and Brandon Jones that ended his day on the spot in 31st.
However, coming into this year, Byron had big hopes for a championship run with the team that had just won Rookie of the Year and the championship with Jones, who moved on to the XFINITY Series. After surviving the carnage at Daytona with a quiet 13th-place finish, Byron suffered an engine failure in Atlanta that forced him to retire after 59 laps.
But move forward to the third race of the season at Martinsville Speedway, and Byron scored his first top-5 finish, followed by him capitalizing on late-race wrecking at Kansas Speedway in early May that gave him his first career win.
Sure a single win for a rookie, especially driving for a team like KBM is to be expected, but what happened next makes Byron stand out. In the eight races that followed his first career win, the driver of the No. 9 Toyota won four of those events and began looking like more of a veteran than a rookie.
Following his fifth win at Pocono Raceway, Byron scored a pair of fourth-place finishes and a 10th before a disappointing 30th-place outing at Chicagoland Speedway to close out the regular season. But the perceived momentum killer of a 30th-place DNF meant nothing to Byron, who led 161 of 175 laps at New Hampshire en route to the win that has him locked into the next round of the Chase.
Meanwhile, when Jones burst onto the scene in 2014 after being hand-picked by Kyle Busch, he scored finishes of 18th, 11th and 23rd at Martinsville, Texas and Gateway, respectively, before grabbing his first career win at Iowa Speedway. In the nine races that followed on Jones’ part-time schedule, he made two more trips to Victory Lane and failed to finish inside the top 10 just once (29th at Eldora).
The 2015 season brought on Jones’ rookie season in which he became the first driver to grab Rookie of the Year honors and the series championship in the same year, which is no small feat given the level of competition the series sees each week.
By the time the checkered flag flew over the 2015 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jones walked away with three wins, 11 top 5s and 20 top-10 finishes in 23 races. By comparison, Byron already has double the wins at six, nine top 5s and 11 top-10 results. Jones’ average finish last season was a full three positions higher than Byron’s current standing at 9.1, and the 2015 champion was much more consistent in his results, finishing outside the top 10 in just three races.
If you look at wins alone, it’s easy to point at Byron as the better driver. After all, double the wins Jones managed to score is pretty impressive for any rookies. But Jones takes the edge when it comes to overall consistency, though he did have more experience in the series coming into his rookie year than Byron did.
For a moment, let’s put the numbers aside and consider the pressure Jones was on during his rookie season, compared to Byron. While the driver of the No. 9 Toyota has been able to focus solely on racing in the Truck Series and significantly stomping the field along the way, Jones was spread pretty thin last year. In addition to racing in the series full-time, Jones also made 23 XFINITY Series starts where he scored two wins and 17 top 10s. And that doesn’t even take into account the three Sprint Cup starts he made – one for Kyle Busch while he was sidelined for injury and two for Matt Kenseth while he was suspended.
While it’s impossible to take into account every scenario that affects a driver’s on-track performance, one thing is certain: Kyle Busch knows how to pick his talent. And as a bonus, he’s put the correct people in place to take his organization from having a lien placed against the shop’s building project in 2010 to the championship powerhouse it is today.
The question that remains is who has the talent to fill the shoes and meet the bar that Jones and Byron have set in the last two seasons at KBM?
- John Hunter Nemechek’s truck failed to meet the height requirements during post-race inspection last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Nemechek, who currently sits fourth in the standings. As of press time, no penalties have been announced.
- Just a week after a fan-fueled effort to get to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Jordan Anderson will be sitting out this weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He told the PETM Podcast, a fan-run weekly conversation, that another driver will be in the No. 66 Chevrolet this weekend. As of press time, that driver had not yet been named.
Unfortunately won't be racing the 66 truck this weekend in Vegas.. Out of my control. Working hard to figure out plans for the rest of 2016.
— Jordan Anderson (@j66anderson) September 27, 2016
I'm torn… hope to be back on track later this year. Thank you all for the incredible support, prayers, and encouragement.
— Jordan Anderson (@j66anderson) September 27, 2016