According to Sports Business Journal, Hendrick Motorsports is expected to replace Kasey Kahne with William Byron as the driver of the No. 5 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team in 2018. On the surface, this seems the logical next step for Byron’s meteoric rise up the NASCAR ranks. He currently sits second in the XFINITY Series regular season points, leads their playoff standings with three wins in 20 starts, and set a rookie record in the Camping World Truck Series in 2016 by winning seven races. Not only is he consistent, he is strong and is almost always at or near the front.
However, it is too soon to be promoting Byron to the Cup Series. He just hasn’t been established enough to make a successful jump. Granted, he’s no stranger to Victory Lane, but as has been proven time and again, Cup cars are entirely different animals from XFINITY, Trucks, and so forth.
Take at look at Joey Logano, for example. In the years leading up to his June 2008 XFINITY Series debut at Dover, he was hyped as the literal second coming of Jeff Gordon. He backed that up with a sixth-place run in his first race, won the pole the next week at Nashville, then won his first career race at Kentucky the week after that. In 19 starts, he won once, earned five top-fives, and 14 top-10s. He was promoted to Cup the next season in 2009.
Although he earned a win (a rain-shortened event at Loudon in July), three top-fives, and seven top-10s, he finished 20th in points. The next season improve to 16th in points, but in 2011 he fell back to 24th in points. In 2012 he scored his second career win, but finished 17th in points. It wasn’t until his 2013 move to Team Penske that his Cup career finally started to rise.
Another example would be a former Hendrick Motorsports driver of the No. 5, Kyle Busch. In his rookie XFINITY campaign in 2004, he won five times and finished second in points with 16 top-fives and 22 top-10s. With the sort of numbers he put on the board he was immediately moved to the Cup Series, where he took over the No. 5 from Terry Labonte. He won twice, but finished a dismal 20th in points. He won twice more over the next two seasons, but he didn’t start becoming a serious contender until his move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008.
Byron has the talent and wherewithal to become a Cup champion, but he needs more time to hone those skills before he shows up on the big stage. Chase Elliott, another Hendrick driver, spent two full seasons in the XFINITY Series and although he has yet to win a race, his quiet consistency and ability to stay out of trouble has kept him in Playoff consistency two years in a row.
That said, although wins are a plus and a must in the current points system, Byron is still young and impressionable. He doesn’t need to be rush like Logano or Busch. He’s such a talent, easily a championship-caliber XFINITY driver, it would benefit both Hendrick and Byron if they waited at least a year.
That does leave Hendrick in a tight spot, though. Who will drive the No. 5? Well, there will be some free agents out and about for 2018. Give the ride to Matt Kenseth, at least for a year. Reasonable agreement with a strong, established driver. Nothing would be lost on the arrangement and Byron would also have the benefit of learning from a Cup champion.
Or just make the No. 5 a part-time ride, much like the No. 25 is for up-and-coming drivers linked up with Hendrick. Let Byron learn about Cup the way Elliott did with his brief (albeit rough) tenure in a limited Cup run. That would be better than thrusting him front and center when he isn’t ready. Give him time to work with a Crew Chief that isn’t Keith Rodden (who hasn’t done the No. 5 any favors besides winning Indy with Kahne) and actually learn the proper nature and communication with his Cup crew.
He’ll bring the Liberty University sponsorship. He’ll bring his otherworldly talent behind the wheel. He’s a well-spoken, ideal face of NASCAR’s next generation of drivers. But pushing him into the No. 5 Cup team, essentially putting him in the spotlight at this point, would only serve to do more harm than good. Give Byron a chance to learn and grow before he graduates to the big leagues.