They say it is never easy moving up to the top level of a sport and, unfortunately, William Byron, who recently turned 21 years old, found that out in 2018.
Byron entered his rookie season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. Not only that, but he stepped into the famed No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports. No pressure for a young kid who got his start on iRacing not very long ago, right?
After a successful season in the Camping World Truck Series in 2016 for Kyle Busch Motorsports, Byron moved to JR Motorsports for the 2017 Xfinity Series season where he won the championship. As a result, Rick Hendrick gave the nod to Byron to be the new driver of the No. 24 car after Chase Elliott switched to the team’s No. 9 Chevrolet.
2018 was a year of adjustment for Byron and Hendrick Motorsports as a whole, with a new Chevy body in the Camaro ZL1 and a new lineup featuring three drivers under the age of 26 and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb lead the team for Byron, and expectations were high for the young man going into his rookie campaign.
Several rookies, in the last few seasons, have impressed right out of the gate — such as Elliott in 2016 and Erik Jones in 2017. Byron hoped to at least match that duo’s success and maybe even one up them by grabbing a win.
To further add to his already full plate of pressure, Byron is currently an online student at Liberty University. Managing school and a racing career simultaneously is something none of the other Cup drivers have done, but Byron balanced everything very well.
Up late doing College work. Lonngg day but ready for next weekend @RichmondRaceway. Sunday we showed some promise. Didn’t finish today how we wanted but we’ll keep fighting! Thanks @AxaltaRacing @TeamHendrick fast car 👍🏼 pic.twitter.com/hi7NUnYmnC
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) April 17, 2018
Quickly, we found out the transition to the Cup Series was not going to be as easy for the young 20-year-old as he made his ascent through other series appear. Byron did not have a top-10 finish until Texas Motor Speedway in early April, where he scored a 10th-place finish. Even with the disappointing start to the season, Byron managed to lead his first career laps in the fourth race of the season at ISM Raceway at Phoenix.
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) March 12, 2018
Byron slowly improved as the season progressed, but it was as if the No. 24 team could never hit their stride throughout the year. There were many times it seemed that Byron would be on his way to finishing in the top 10 or top 15, but something went wrong almost every week, especially when we reached the end of the season.
The Charlotte, N.C. native had a total of nine DNFs — that’s right, nine. Five of those came in a nine-race span in the fall.
For a rookie, the goal is to bring the car home in one piece and finish the race, and for Byron, it was a steep learning curve. To go along with those nine DNFs, he only finished on the lead lap in 13 of the 27 races he was running at the end of. He had a total of four top-10 finishes and no top-five finishes.
His best race of the season came at Pocono Raceway in July where Byron led 10 laps and scored a career-best sixth-place finish. He followed it up with an impressive eighth-place result the following week at Watkins Glen International. Unfortunately, Byron only had one more top 10 in the final 14 races of the season — a ninth at Phoenix in the second to last race of 2018.
Byron was the only Hendrick Motorsports driver to miss the playoffs, as all three of his teammates made their way into the postseason. Elliott was the strongest of the HMS cars, scoring 3 wins in 2018, but Johnson and Alex Bowman never reached Victory Lane. With only one Hendrick car reaching the Winner’s Circle this past season, it is safe to say it was a disappointment as a whole.
With an average finish of 22.1, Byron ranked 25th out of the drivers who ran the full season, but his 23rd position in the points standings was enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors. He beat out fellow rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. for that award, as both had fairly tough seasons in their first year in the Cup Series.
In his rookie seasons in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series, he had success right away. In fact, his seven wins in CWTS set the rookie record. But Byron found out the hard way that it is not as easy to reach that level of success in the premier series.
We were able to wrap things up last night in Homestead. Lots of takeaways from this year. Thanks to all of our partners for making it possible and @TeamHendrick for giving me a chance to compete in the cup series. Bring on 19! pic.twitter.com/TBDBj41R8L
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) November 19, 2018
Looking ahead to 2019, Byron will have a new crew chief on the pit box. His name is Chad Knaus. Maybe you have heard of him — he’s only a seven-time championship crew chief.
After 17 years with Johnson, Knaus moves to the No. 24 team with Byron. No matter what happens in Byron’s second year, nobody can really call it a sophomore slump if he has a bad season because his rookie year was one to forget. It can only go up for the still-young prospect, and with that leadership from Knaus, he should have a much improved 2019.
Byron’s Final Statistics:
36 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 4 top 10s, 61 laps led
Best finish: 6th (Pocono II)
Points finish: 23rd
Driver grade: C