Byron emerges as another star in Hendrick's deep lineup
By DAVID BRANDT
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) Kyle Larson is widely considered to be the most naturally-gifted driver at Hendrick Motorsports and there's little doubt that Chase Elliott is the most popular.
But as of March 2023, William Byron might just be the team's best driver.
It's been a slow, steady rise for Byron, who has won two straight NASCAR Cup Series races after pushing past Larson in overtime on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway during a pair of frantic restarts. The 25-year-old won in remarkably similar fashion last week at Las Vegas.
“We have four capable teams and four capable drivers of carrying the banner every weekend,” Byron's crew chief Rudy Fugle said. “Pretty amazing.”
Byron got a relatively late start in racing as a teenager, but has been a quick study. The North Carolina native won twice last season and now looks like a weekly threat while teaming with Fugle.
This is Byron's sixth season with Hendrick Motorsports and he received a contact extension last season after winning two races early in the year at Atlanta and Martinsville. He had a mid-season lull before closing with seven top 10s in his final 11 races and finished sixth in the Cup standings.
It's part of a progression that's slowly pushed him among NASCAR's elite drivers. He was 21st overall in his first full Cup season in 2018, before improving to 11th, 14th, 10th and then sixth in the ensuing years.
Now with two wins in the season's first four races, it's clear Byron is aiming for the No. 1 spot.
“This level is so different. Took a lot of homework, a lot of details,” Byron said. “I think the fact that I started later than most driving was a little bit - it took some time to bridge that gap at this level.
"Now that gap is bridged obviously.”
Jeff Gordon - one of NASCAR's most successful drivers who is now vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports - knows a little about winning for Hendrick. His 93 victories are the most in team history.
Gordon sees Byron as a growing driver just now realizing his potential.
“I see a progression with William ever since he came to Hendrick,” Jeff Gordon said. "Got to remember how young he was coming into the Cup Series, so much to learn. Young in racing in so many ways.
“When Rudy came to Hendrick, the instant connection and chemistry between these two was so obvious. It just took the whole team up to another notch. I think now they’re just building on that. It’s a lot of fun to watch and see.”
Byron's back-to-back wins are part of a stellar start to the season for Hendrick's Chevrolets. Larson is a threat to win nearly every week and seven-time Cup winner Alex Bowman has four top 10s in four races.
Even Josh Berry - filling in for the injured Elliott - was competitive at Phoenix, finishing in 10th place. Berry will likely get a few more races in the No. 9 Chevrolet as Elliott recovers from a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding accident.
“To get out of an Xfinity car and hop into a Cup car that’s so different I think is a big, tall task,” Gordon said. “We put him in a bad situation last week. This week I saw him putting in the effort and the time, the sim, getting fitted in the seat, doing his homework. It really showed up.”
The only bad news for Hendrick came on Friday, when NASCAR officials took the hood louvers from the team's four cars, bringing them to the NASCAR Research & Development Center in North Carolina for inspection. Any potential penalties would be announced this week.
Gordon said that issue was obviously a concern, but it's hard to damper the mood at Hendrick, which is looking awfully tough with its group of young and increasingly successful teams.
Gordon called the hood louvers issue a “miscommunication.”
“I don’t want to go any further than that,” Gordon said. “We’ll continue to just share all the facts and be transparent with NASCAR as we have been so far.”
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Updated March 14, 2023