News Analysis: Hendrick Motorsports changes numbers

What happened: Chase Elliott will switch from No. 24 to his family’s famed No. 9 next season — along with the current No. 24 team — and the current No. 5 team with William Byron will instead become the No. 24 team. The No. 5 will not be used by Hendrick next season, though team owner Rick Hendrick said in a news release he would not rule out its return at some point in the future.

What it means: Bill Elliott used the No. 9 for a large part of his career and son Chase followed suit as he rose through the ranks, so this is a dream come true for the Elliott family. Meanwhile, Byron now will enter the Cup ranks with higher expectations on his shoulders. Even though it’s just a number switch — and Byron will be with what is now the No. 5 team, which has underperformed — the prospect of Byron in Jeff Gordon’s car number is significant. Longtime Elliott fans may be on board with the move, but newer Elliott fans — many of whom had warmed to the driver because he was Gordon’s successor in the 24 — may be wondering what to do now.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. Even though it’s just a number change, it’s a pretty big deal to have a new driver in the famous No. 24 car, see the No. 9 return with an Elliott driving it and watch the cursed No. 5 car disappear — all in one announcement.

Three questions: Will Gordon fans who started backing Elliott because he was in the No. 24 follow the driver to the No. 9, or will they root for Byron and stay with the number? Will the No. 9 team be able to shake whatever bad luck comes with being the “fourth” number at Hendrick (No. 5, No. 25)? What is our obsession with car numbers in NASCAR and why does it seem bigger than jersey numbers in other sports?

News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car

What happened: William Byron, age 19, will be named as the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car starting in 2018, according to (in order of reporting) SportsBusiness Journal, SBNation.com and Motorsport.com. The team has not officially announced the move (and I haven’t personally confirmed it, but I don’t doubt those who have). Byron, who grew up playing NASCAR video games but did not start racing until five years ago, will replace Kasey Kahne, whose departure from Hendrick was announced Monday. The racing prodigy is currently a rookie in the Xfinity Series, where he is second in points with three wins for JR Motorsports — this following his seven wins last season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.

What it means: The face of Hendrick Motorsports has been dramatically altered in the last few years. Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (combined 137 Cup victories) have been replaced with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Byron (combined zero Cup victories), who have an average age of 21.3. Byron will now be a full-time Cup driver after just one year each in Trucks and Xfinity — and that seems like an awfully quick move, similar to the rapid ascents of Joey Logano and Kyle Larson. Byron is unquestionably talented, but it would have been nice to see him run another full season of Xfinity before getting promoted to Cup — something even Jimmie Johnson indicated last month. “At his age, I just don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up,” Johnson told a small group of reporters at New Hampshire. “If you look back at past history, like a Joey Logano scenario, it just takes time. I feel so lucky I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. … I think I was just in a better place than the position some of these young guys are put in. They’re super talented, it’s just a lot of pressure to put on those guys.”

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. Even if Byron was the likely replacement after the team said Kahne was out, it’s still quite noteworthy that Hendrick continues to use young and relatively inexperienced drivers to fill its seasons considering veteran drivers like Matt Kenseth are on the free agent market. It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick was the most sought-after destination for established drivers who had already won many races. Now the seats are being snatched up by drivers who are unproven at the Cup level. Dale Earnhardt Jr. shed some light on why this might be the case for Silly Season in general, and it makes sense again in this scenario.

Three questions: Can Byron continue to immediately adapt and win at the next level, as he has done in each series along the way up the ladder? Since it turned out OK for Logano and Larson in the long run, what are the real risks of moving him up too soon? Who will replace Byron at JRM now that he will be vacating a championship-caliber seat in the Xfinity Series?

Related: Here are my 12 Questions interviews with Byron from 2016 and from 2017.

 

12 Questions with William Byron

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with William Byron of JR Motorsports. Byron, a rookie, is currently third in the Xfinity Series point standings. I spoke to him at Talladega.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I’d say it’s probably 70 percent natural and 30 percent working at it. I started racing five years ago, so it’s kind of come fast and something that when I started, I just picked it up. I’ve been able to work at running the different racetracks and learning the different cars. So it’s probably 70/30.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

My pitch is probably just the fact that I race for Junior and I think running for JR Motorsports is a good way to support us and kind of branch out into something that he supports as well. Dale and I, we get the chance to go cycling and stuff like that, so we’ve had a chance to bond and hopefully bring over some of those fans in the future. We’ll just have to see what happens. But yeah, I think JR Motorsports is a good way to keep supporting.

That’s a pretty good argument. You’re like, “Hey, Junior fans, look at somebody who actually drives for him!”

Exactly, yeah.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

The hardest part is probably the travel and stuff, just going to different places every week and being away from kind of a normal life. But that part’s all exciting; you get to go to a lot of different racetracks, meet a lot of different people and it’s a lot different than what my 19-year-old friends are doing in college. I get pictures of them going to football games and stuff. It’s different, but it’s what I love to do, so it’s fun.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, I think so. Absolutely. That would be a pretty cool experience to be noticed in a restaurant. You know, I had that (recognition) just outside the racetrack at the same weekend of the race, but if it was just a normal weekend, it’d be neat to have a fan come up and want an autograph. So yeah, for sure.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

Probably just how much the teams work on the cars. It sounds repetitive, but there’s so much work that goes into this sport, and I think that’s sometimes lost in the fray of what we do. There’s so much practice and effort that goes into each weekend, so it’s just very competitive. That’s a credit to what the teams are doing, what the drivers are doing and all the engineering that’s going on to make that happen. 

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Probably Dale. We were going riding last week Wednesday, and the peer pressure set in of going to ride with him. I didn’t really want to at first, but yeah. Dale and all of our group chat have just been talking about fitness stuff, that’s been the hot topic lately. So (I’ve) just been doing that during the week.

What’s your cycling experience? Did you just get into it recently with all these other people at the same time?

Yeah, I actually just got a bike. I wasn’t so sure about all the spandex and everything, but it’s fun and it’s actually pretty fast. As race car drivers, you know we love that. Going downhill is fun when we’re all in a pack drafting.

The thing that’s ironic and weird about cycling is when you lose the draft, you’re done. It’s like being at Talladega. So you gotta make sure you get tucked into the draft, stuff like that. But yeah, I’ve been doing it for the last month or so.

7. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’ve never used the middle finger. Five years ago, racing Legend cars, my second race, I was racing hard and I had no idea what I was doing. I got into somebody, whatever happened — and I got the bird. I got the middle finger.

I was kind of like, “Man, this is kind of a harsh way to start.” So I guess that’s just something that I’ve never chose to use after that; it kind of rubbed me the wrong way and it was kind of a tough thing to learn right out of the box that somebody would do that. So I just kind of never use it. 

8. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, I think definitely so. When I watched as a kid, what was entertaining for me watching NASCAR was maybe not the same as I think now as a driver. When the cars are hard to drive and things aren’t going well, that’s frustrating as a driver but it’s entertaining as a fan. You gotta balance that.

I think you gotta really express your feelings about the race and not just hold back and always do what you think is best for you and your team. Sometimes you’ve got to make it exciting a little bit and that’s what makes it fun to watch.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, I think you kind of build (it) up. When you’re in the race car, you remember the number on the car, you remember the way the car looks, the way the person drives. You don’t always remember their name, ironically — you just kind of remember, “Hey, this person raced me this way last week,” or “This person keeps running me over every week,” or whatever, stuff like that. You just kind of take a mental note of that and either apply it or keep it and just make sure you have that in the back of your pocket if you need to use it.

But I think if somebody races you really clean, you tend to develop a friendship or develop a respect in the garage and talk to them before the race and stuff like that. So people like Daniel Hemric or Elliott Sadler are people I race against that race me really clean. I just keep racing them clean and ask them for advice, too.

That’s interesting. So in some cases, it could be like, “That red No. 90 car got in my way again! Oh my gosh!” And you don’t even necessarily know who it is exactly?

I mean, I know who it is, but the car and the number kind of take a personality of its own — and I think of that differently than when I see the guy in the garage. I think we all change when we’re in the helmet. We definitely do, because it’s never the same as you expect that person to be, so that’s probably the biggest difference.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’d say in racing, just probably Mr. H (Rick Hendrick). That’s probably, for me growing up, the most famous person that I could picture and Mr. H and really just Jimmie or something like that would be the most famous person.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

Sometimes I don’t always say what’s on my mind, so I think sometimes I kind of hold it inside. I think that’s sometimes a good quality to have, but sometimes to get things done, you have to say what’s on your mind. So that would be the one thing I would change if I could.

12. The last interview I did was with Daniel Hemric. He wanted me to ask a driver who started out with some financial backing how you overcame the stigma of being a money guy to being someone known for his talent.

I think that I had the sponsors like Liberty (University) with me early on, so that was my way of kind of connecting myself with somebody, kind of showing that I had a sponsor. But that sponsor wasn’t really interested with what I was doing on the racetrack, so it was more off the racetrack, and I think that did affect me because people were like, “What is Liberty doing on his car every week? His dad must know them,” or something like that. That always bothered me a little bit because it was a real sponsor and they were helping me.

I overcame it just with my on-track performance. Just kind of knowing how I started, how much I wanted to race as a kid — just like every kid wanted to — and the fact that I did get that chance was kind of rare. So I just took that opportunity and ran with it to try and win races and show that I can do things that other people couldn’t. That’s how I got to this point, and now I’ve kind of overcome that and I’m able to just be with JRM and Hendrick with everybody that can support me now.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with, but do you have a general question so I can ask the next driver?

What sport do they watch outside of racing and what things do our sport need to take and apply from other sports?

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!