It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. NASCAR drivers would do anything to work with a seven-time championship-winning crew chief.
But the only one who gets to do it now besides Jimmie Johnson, is soon-to-be Hendrick Motorsports sophomore driver William Byron. Byron, the hyped-up rookie for Hendrick in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, is in the midst of a difficult first year. However, the team’s belief is that working with Johnson’s longtime crew chief Chad Knaus will create a new superstar duo.
Those expectations, though, might be too much for the 20-year-old.
Imagine having all of the support Byron has from team owner Rick Hendrick, his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, sponsors and Chevrolet. That’s intense. Does it remind you of anyone?
Oh, right. That Jeff Gordon guy.
Gordon certainly didn’t struggle to the extent Byron has in his first year in NASCAR’s premier division, but it’s worth a comparison. The original rainbow warrior himself earned seven top fives and 11 top 10s in his inaugural Cup season. Byron, meanwhile, has managed only three top 10s.
Hendrick’s struggles this year are well-documented, with each of its drivers suffering from Chevrolet’s move to the Camaro, along with internal changes. That, plus bringing in new full-time drivers Byron and Alex Bowman, has caused HMS to drop to a mid-pack team rather than one that runs for top fives.
But even then, Byron had modest expectations for the year. He wasn’t predicted to make the playoffs by many, but he was expected to grow as the year continued. But that hasn’t really happened. He has seven DNFs in 31 races, six of which have been caused by wrecks. The door panel might say the No. 24, but this is really the cursed No. 5 team that has seen more ups and downs than any other at HMS in recent history.
Current crew chief Darian Grubb is a champion, but working with a rookie driver, no matter how talented they are, is no easy task. This is his first time working with a rookie, and a changing HMS didn’t make things easier for the pair.
Now you have another veteran crew chief taking over the helm of the No. 24 team. Knaus only struggled once in his career as a crew chief, and that was with Stacy Compton in 2001, earning one top 10 and DNQing for two races with Melling Racing.
So this will put Knaus in unfamiliar territory. It will be a new challenge for him, but it’s one that’s worth it in the minds at Hendrick Motorsports.
For Byron, it’s a challenge he needs. He must be teamed with a great crew chief in order for the organization to judge his potential. Knaus could do something no other crew chief can do, and that’s train Byron to be the next Johnson.
Johnson won in Cup right away with Knaus. Byron did not do so with Grubb. A change was needed, and this is the best that HMS can provide.
This means Byron must step up his game. He can’t wreck cars anymore. If he has a 25th-place car, don’t crash it trying to get to 15th. That’s what’s often happened this year. He overdrives his car out of frustration, and it ends with him losing control.
Hendrick should have more speed next year, too, which would help the No. 24 team adjust to the change. By next year’s Daytona 500, Chevrolet will have more information about how to improve the Camaros. If it can figure out what’s wrong overall, Byron can step up, just like he did in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series.
Remember, after all, Byron is a proven champion. He won seven Truck Series contests with Kyle Busch Motorsports before being poached by Hendrick, JR Motorsports and Chevrolet, where he won the 2017 XFINITY title. He can get the job done. It’s just a matter of providing him with the right support group, and Knaus can do just that.
This should be a huge confidence boost for the Charlotte native, too. It shows just how much Hendrick is investing in him. If the team believes he can get the job done with the sport’s highest-rated crew chief, he should know it’s go-time.
However, if Byron doesn’t perform well next year or at least battle for a playoff spot like teammate Chase Elliott did in each of the last two seasons before finally earning a Cup win, a deeper discussion needs to be had at the shop. Just how long, after all, can Hendrick wait until this guy competes for wins? The team’s dedication to Elliott paid off after two-and-a-half years. At this rate, it might take Byron a bit longer to show that he’s worth the investment, but will the team show that kind of patience?
To break up one of NASCAR’s all-time greatest driver/crew chief combinations means the pressure is on at Hendrick Motorsports. Byron needs to step up. If he doesn’t, it won’t be long until his team and sponsors decide it’s time for another change.