The truck series victories were piling up – five this season for Charlottean William Byron through the race at Pocono.
He had the clean-cut personality and that "it" factor. So Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick decided this was a now-or-never imperative. Tuesday Hendrick signed Byron, recently graduated from Charlotte Country Day, to a multi-year contract to drive in the Xfinity series starting in 2017.
"We’re excited about him just like we’re excited about Chase" Elliott, Hendrick’s Sprint Cup rookie this season. "If you don’t get someone like him long before it’s time for someone (else) to retire, then you don’t have him. We want to bring someone along like William so we know we have someone for the future of our company."
The majority of Hendrick’s current drivers are aging out. Jeff Gordon retired at the end of last season, though he is filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., suffering from concussion-like symptoms. Earnhardt and Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson are both in their 40s.
Never miss a local story.
So Hendrick felt it imperative to add young talent to the Hendrick organization.
"(Signing) Williams has nothing to do with Dale," Hendrick said in response to a concussion question Saturday. "William has all to do with our future down the road. What’s going to happen three to five years."
Hendrick recently invited Byron, 18, and his father to his home to discuss his future. Byron grew up with a special affinity for the Hendrick organization. Johnson was his favorite driver (he still has a pillow case Johnson signed from years ago when Byron and friends knocked on Johnson’s door for Halloween).
"That Hendrick connection was the goal; they were always the standard for me growing up," Byron said.
Byron began training to drive when he was 13, first in I-racing, a computer simulation.
"it’s basically a video game and I got into a real car at 14," Byron said. "That sounds young, but it’s actually pretty old compared to a lot of the drivers I race against."
In terms of talent, Hendrick compared Byron to a young Gordon. What locked up this decision was how Byron came across at that meeting at Hendrick’s home.
"I just remember more than anything how polished and determined he was to get in the car with our organization," Hendrick said.
"Then you watch the races. You watch his restarts up in Pocono. And I was glad I reached out. Like Chase, he’s got the whole package."
Hendrick said he’s made more than a few miss-assessments with young drivers, but he’s certain this was the right guy at the right time.
"Trust me, I have been a tremendous failure at driver development. One year we wrecked 50-some (vehicles), and that was enough for me," Hendrick said. "But none of those (prospects) had the experience or the success that William has."
Hendrick was asked for an update on Earnhardt, who has now missed five consecutive races.
"Dale looks great. We went to lunch Wednesday," Hendrick said. "We are taking extra effort with the doctors, making sure he’s going to be 100 percent. He has a doctor’s appointment next week. He’s coming along great and wants to get back into the car."
Gordon would not be available as a fill-in driver at Michigan next Sunday due to a previous obligation.
Bonnell: 704358-5129; @rick_bonnell