William Byron is often compared to the man who made the No. 24 car famous, Jeff Gordon. He entered the NASCAR Cup Series arena in 2018 with more hardware (Xfinity Series title, 11 wins in lower series) than Gordon was ever able to pile up before his promotion. Byron started his rookie Cup season at age 20; Gordon was age 21. A pairing with seven-time crew chief Chad Knaus was Ray Evernham-like. The pieces were there for Byron to match Gordon early in his Cup career.
These changes worked, pushing Byron a few steps forward in 2019. It just wasn’t enough to proclaim him a future Cup champion, as the jury remains out on this driver’s long-term prospects two years in.
Byron still has yet to win a race, a goal Gordon accomplished twice in his second season. The closest he came was the fall 2019 race at Martinsville Speedway, a late-race battle with a dominant Martin Truex Jr. during which ultimately came up short.
P2. Such a good effort by everyone @Hendrick24Team. Loved coming here as a kid, but it hasn’t been fun yet as a driver. Today felt different. Congrats @MartinTruex_Jr and team. pic.twitter.com/195Ff9FTxb
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) October 28, 2019
It was substantial improvement at a type of track that’s been Byron’s biggest weakness. He’s never won at the bullrings of Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway and Martinsville at any NASCAR level, and that race was his first top-10 finish at those ovals in 12 career starts.
You can credit some of that to Knaus’ experience, communication improving dramatically with Byron as the year went on. He seemed more at peace in the post-Jimmie Johnson divorce, jumping right in with his first new driver since 2001. The Byron partnership was also a homecoming of sorts for Knaus, who started his NASCAR career as a fabricator for Gordon’s team back in the 1990s.
“He’s given me that platform to be organized and be direct and really tell him what’s on my mind,” Byron said of the relationship in September. “He’s given me that ability to not take feelings into account. I think that’s really important. We haven’t ever had those awkward situations where we don’t feel comfortable saying something. He made that barrier come down really quick. I think that happened around the [Coca-Cola] 600 in May.”
The duo had high hopes for that race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, earning its first pole together outside a superspeedway. It was hard to ignore the possibility of history repeating itself; Gordon won his first race, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, during his second season.
Byron couldn’t quite get over the hump but still put together a solid performance, leading 31 laps and finishing ninth. It was also the start of a next-level push, as 11 of the driver’s 13 top 10s piled up over the season’s final 24 races. Johnson- or Gordon-type numbers? Not yet. But Byron slowly started carving out his own niche while the driver/crew chief relationship started to blossom.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Knaus said in October. “William, if you want to draw some parallels between William and Jimmie, there really aren’t any. Jimmie’s completely West Coast, laid back, chill kind of guy. Really races with a flow and kind of has that mentality. William is not that way. He’s very studious, he looks at the track data that we’ve got, he’s very specific. If you can identify an area where he’s deficient, he goes to work in that area and he improves on that specifically.
“I’ve enjoyed with William a lot because he is that aggressively attacking the data side of things, his driving style and looking at what other drivers do around him. It’s been a lot of fun. [And] it’s not just the driver, it’s the team. The whole No. 24 team has gone up a level, I feel.”
“As far as me shaping him, it’s staying positive and staying motivated in the race,” Byron added. “I don’t seem to do well with negative energy, so he’s done really well at channeling that a different way. I’ve noticed that a lot.”
The one place Knaus helped Byron the most has been qualifying speed. His average start was up significantly in 2019, from 17.7 to 12.4, and five poles ranked second in the Cup Series to Kevin Harvick. He posted speed right out of the box, starting out front for the 2019 Daytona 500 and leading 44 laps before a late crash put the No. 24 on a wrecker.
That was one of just three DNFs for Byron, a significant improvement over the nine he posted in 2018. Two of them were in the Russian Roulette style of superspeedway racing while the third, a blown engine in the Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale, was out of his control. That bodes well for a driver many are expecting to post a breakout season come 2020.
Such optimism is based around the Charlotte-to-Indianapolis Motor Speedway stretch, a period from May to September when Byron jumped from 19th in the standings into playoff position. Then, during the postseason, he had a chance to be the highest-finishing Hendrick Motorsports driver in the point standings, besting even three-time winner Chase Elliott.
Byron posted three top-six finishes in the final eight races: the Martinsville runner-up effort, a fifth at Kansas Speedway in October and a sixth on the Charlotte ROVAL. The early performance was enough to put him through to the Round of 12 and ultimately keep him inside the top 10 in points until the finale.
“It’s been a really good season for the No. 24 team,” he said after Homestead. “Today’s race didn’t end the way we would have liked [a blown engine ended his race], and it’s unfortunate that a mechanical failure is how our last race of the season would end. I’m still proud, though, of everything we have accomplished this year as a team, especially to be able to finish 11th in points.”
If you’re still comparing at home, that’s slightly behind Gordon two years into his Cup career running the No. 24. Gordon’s 1994 wins were iconic, at Charlotte and the first Brickyard 400 held at Indianapolis. He wound up eighth in the final standings, posting seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 31 races, a rate slightly above what we’ve seen out of Byron thus far.
There’s also one other part of this whole motorsports career with which Gordon remains light years ahead: popularity. His Twitter following of 1.22 million as of December puts to shame Byron’s 73,100. In fact, the 21-year-old is fourth out the HMS quartet; most popular driver award-winning Elliott sits at 828,000, Alex Bowman has at 101,000 while Jimmie Johnson retains a healthy 2.63 million.
It’s not for a lack of trying. Byron, like most young drivers, is active at social media and open about a variety of interests outside of racing: sports, lake activities, college (Liberty University, also one of his primary sponsors). His love of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby even peeked through.
TBT. I just wanna go fast pic.twitter.com/hk2gR9m29o
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) October 31, 2019
As you might expect, Hendrick is doing its best to market the driver of the No. 24 whenever possible. From appearances on programs like Comcast’s #WatchUsWatchNASCAR in May to a video diary detailing his daily life, there’s no shortage of media coverage surrounding its young talent.
I always get asked what I do during the week. Here's a glimpse into what my day looks like – when I'm not in team meetings or studying, of course. 😎
— William Byron (@WilliamByron) September 5, 2019
But these glimpses into Byron’s life also reveal what may be a future popularity problem. Point at Elliott (famous father) and Bowman (love of dogs) and you can find something unique. Byron? He’s an ordinary guy with extraordinary skills who got the right opportunities to move up the ladder. Off track, that normalcy feels as much like following a MBA student as it is a fun-loving athlete.
There’s certainly no problem with that. A boardroom-like appearance just hasn’t translated well into popularity in what’s historically a blue-collar sport.
“I’ve been forced to grow up really fast,” Byron told Frontstretch in July. “Make sure I develop to where I need to be competitive at this level. It’s definitely a man’s sport, and you have to prepare yourself really well and make sure you’re doing all the things necessary in your personal life, too, to be at your best.”
That’s the type of politically correct, mature public face Hendrick likes to have in its drivers. On track, that’s a positive; it’s clear Byron is focused on future success come 2020 and beyond.
The expectations, though are higher than what he’s currently achieving. Remember Gordon’s third season? It ended with him holding up the Cup Series championship trophy.
Right now, matching that appears a tall order. With Johnson on the way out at HMS, can Byron rise up and show the company its best days are still in front of it?
36 starts, no wins, five top fives, 13 top 10s, five poles
Best Finish: Second, twice (Daytona – July and Martinsville – October)
Point Standings: 11th
Season Grade: B