William Byron summed up his future at Hendrick Motorsports in two words: “I’m ready.”
That was the answer Byron gave team owner Rick Hendrick on Sunday night, when Hendrick first broached the possibility of the 19-year-old moving up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2018.
“He didn’t know why we were meeting,” Hendrick said on Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. “I said, ‘William, how’d you like to drive in Cup next year?’ And he said, ‘I’m ready.’ There was no hesitation.
“We’re just really excited. It was a special moment. … Just to see his face and the excitement there, those are real special moments when you can break the news.”
On Wednesday morning, HMS made that news official. Byron will drive the No. 5 Chevrolet in the Monster Energy Series next season, with primary sponsorship from existing partners Axalta and Liberty University filling most of the race dates. Byron replaces Kasey Kahne, who will leave the car with one year remaining on his contract.
“We haven’t gotten the job done,” Hendrick said of the results from the No. 5 car. “I take full responsibility for that. For whatever reason, we weren’t getting it.”
Though Byron has never driven a Monster Energy Series car in competition, he has shown enormous talent at every level of racing, winning seven times in his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rookie season last year and winning three times in 20 NASCAR XFINITY Series starts this season. Byron currently is second to JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler in the XFINITY standings.
“As a kid, this is the race shop that I would drive by and look in the windows,” Byron said of his early affinity for Hendrick Motorsports. “Actually, at the 5/24 (shop), they have the window there, and I would walk up to that, and it’s pretty cool to be on the other side of it next year. …
“I feel like I’ve put the work into it, and I feel like I’m learning on the job, and that’s been the biggest thing for me, to learn from the best people I can have around me. Just looking forward to the future.”
With 24-year-old Alex Bowman recently announced as the successor to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet, the shift to Byron from Kahne further reduces the age and experience of the Hendrick roster. Second-year driver Chase Elliott, who replaced Jeff Gordon into the No. 24 car last year, is 22.
That leaves seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who will turn 42 in September, as the only veteran in the Hendrick camp.
“Jimmie Johnson will be a mentor to all three of them,” Hendrick said. “We still have Jeff Gordon involved, and Dale Earnhardt’s going to be involved. He’s still going to be involved with the team, so we’ve got a lot of coaches. But the main thing is just not putting too much pressure on them and let them go out and learn.”
Hendrick says he is also trying to help Kahne take the next step in his career. Kahne has spent six years in the No. 5 car and recently qualified for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with a victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I have an obligation to Kasey, so I’m paying two drivers next year,” Hendrick said. “And I’m also trying to help Kasey in another situation that we could be involved with helping another team.
“So therefore, it’s not so much about money. It’s about the future and building for the future, getting a fresh start.”
That’s precisely what Hendrick hopes and expects from Byron.