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, and 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.


20 Replies to “News Analysis: Reports say William Byron to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car”

  1. It would be good for William of he had another year in Xfinity. But if this turns out as you expect, Jeff, he will make his first year mistakes in Cup next year. Remembering the wreckage from JG’s first season makes one realize that Rick Hendrick has patience with great talent. I will be cheering for Alex and William next year.

  2. Since Kasey’s contract ran thru next season, is it possible he winds up in the 9 at JRM? Or is the remainder of his deal just bought out?

    Obviously unlikely, but I’d love to see Bubba land at JRM.

  3. It’ll be interesting to see how many races Liberty U will sponsor. Also in addition to Bowman will Axalta sponsor any races seeing as they sponsored some for him in Xfinity.

    Then what happens with JRM will they be a 3 car operation or could they continue to be a 4 car operation? I like it when they have a young up and coming driver like Kes, Chase and Willy B.

  4. Jeff….just reference to the interview Dale Jr. gave last week. Rides are being filled by drivers taking 1/10 of what an experienced driver has been making. Moreover, sponsorship is no longer at $30M per season, but at $10M or so for a season.

    The deal for Byron and Bowman are nothing more than cheap alternatives. Byron is a buy-a-ride due to his Liberty U. sponsorship. Bowman was given the reigns after a successful fill in last year, and the sponsors signing off on it…at a speculated significantly reduced rate than with Dale Jr. Have to think if Lowe’s did not renew, JJ would be looking at a possible early retirement as well.

    NASCAR is where IndyCar was years ago….limited sponsorship money, and buy-a-rides are the economics of the sport. Until the teams get their overhead, personnel, and get back to “reasonable” spending inline with the current sponsorship, this exodus of veterans will continue.

    If you think ratings are bad this year, wait until next year! In 3 years Gordon, Earnhardt, Stewart, Biffle, possible Kurt Busch & Matt Kenseth will be retired or out of rides. Have to think JJ, Harvick, Hamlin, and possibly Kahne will be soon to follow.

    I didn’t leave NASCAR, NASCAR has left me. It is no longer the sport I have followed for 30 plus years, and is now just a glorified rich man’s private club and ran by drivers who have rich financial backing, not hard earned talent. Good riddance.

    1. If you think that William Byron is a “buy-a-ride” driver, then your head has been in the sand the past two seasons. Keep up!!

  5. Interesting that there have been talks of needing salary/spending caps in NASCAR and here we are seeing natural market forces resulting in a voluntary salary cap. Companies balking at the cost of sponsoring a car at 20-30 million are forcing owners to scale down the salaries of drivers. Looks like Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth are the first championship caliber drivers that are being forced to accept this new reality. If they want to continue racing they will need to accept less for their services. As sponsor contracts end this might be the trend for all drivers. Reality is a bitch.

  6. My question is, has all the latest technology (Pull down rigs, extra wind tunnel time, multiple engineers) saved the teams money since they no longer test at the track, or cost teams money with having to have all the newest/most expensive people and equipment?

  7. Just wishful thinking here, but what if Hendrick Motorsports gives Matt Kenseth a 1 year deal so he can bring Toyota’s secrets from Joe Gibbs Racing, thus also giving William Byron another year in the XFINITY series.

  8. I feel like the oringinal plan was to have William run 2 years in xfinity until Khanes contract ran out next year, but sponsors decided to leave Kasey, so Rick didn’t really have a choice but to let go of Kasey early and move William up faster.

  9. Solid analysis, Jeff. I’ve been a Kahne fan since the Evernham days, but I don’t blame Mr. H for pulling the trigger here — it’s a no-brainer from an owner’s perspective in 2017. Happy for Byron and Bowman, they raced their way in. That said, I think Kahne’s best landing spot is FRR with Truex. I don’t think he’d thrive at SHR (or enjoy it), but I think he sees Truex as a peer. I just hope Kahne doesn’t end up at RCR being forced to “mentor” Austin Dillon or something. If Kahne gets the 77 at FRR, I think he’s fast off the truck at Daytona in February — and a great teammate to Truex.

  10. One more thing I forgot to mention — as a long-suffering Kahne fan who happens to be a dude, I’m well aware of Kahne’s appeal to the ladies out there. Despite his recent slump, I’ve seen no real decline in his merchandise sales or fan representation at the track. So maybe he couldn’t cut it sponsor-wise at HMS, but I wouldn’t count him out as a powerhouse driver when it comes to fanbase and merchandise. Nothing against Matt Kenseth or Kurt Busch, but I think Kahne might have the edge there when he’s shopping for a new ride.

  11. Jeff,

    At the 88/Bowman announcement/ press conference Mr H said to the assembled group that Wm Byron was going to be in Xfinity in 2018. I understand that things can change however it seems that HMS knew what lay ahead for KK and thus would have said no comment to the question rather than the firm one given.

  12. The sport is going through a market correction. With sponsorships trending towards smaller dollar amounts, it’s only logical that the biggest expense on the team, driver salary, be adjusted downward so as to fit the racing budget. Kasey Kahne made over $9 million last year. That is way overpriced for the three Top 5 finishes and ZERO laps led that he had in 2016. Add to that, two of the bigger sponsors on the #5 car decided not to renew for next year, and you can see why Kahne was asked not to return for 2018.

    Let the young lions get in there and race. They are not afraid to go door-to-door and fender-to-fender with more experienced drivers. They will be the ones to save NASCAR from itself.

    1. Leroy is spot-on. I’m a Kahne fan, but the numbers speak for themselves — both dollars and spots on the racetrack. He’s also right that the young guys aren’t afraid to go door-to-door. I was at the spring Dover race in 2016 and the crowd was on their feet when Larson and Elliott raced Kenseth hard for the win at the end. The young guns don’t know any better — and that seems to be a pretty solid strategy in Cup these days.

  13. I always go back to something I heard Mark Martin say once. he commented that somewhere out there there is a UPS man, or a pizza delivery boy that could kick all our butts. Thats what I think of then I think of William Byron. He is just one of those guys that has a natal god given talent that you only see once every 15 to 20 years. the kids been racing 5 years his whole life and he gets it. He is going to be fast and he is going to win and win often. we had Petty, we had Dale Sr. Jeff Gordon then Jimmie….William will be the next. I think he more so then Larson with be the face of this generation of drivers. Dominant for the next 20 years.

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