Last August, Rick Hendrick was constantly asked if teenager William Byron was really ready to drive in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Twelve months later, Hendrick has determined Byron, 19, is really ready for Cup series racing. Hendrick Motorsports made it official Wednesday that Byron, a graduate of Charlotte Country Day, will take over the No. 5 Chevrolet for the 2018 season.
Hendrick invited Byron and his father to his home Sunday night without disclosing a topic for the meeting. In a teleconference with media members Wednesday, Hendrick said he asked Byron a simple question: Are you ready for Cup?
“I’m ready!” Hendrick recalled Byron exclaiming.
Byron’s car will have Axalta and Liberty University as primary sponsors in 2018.
Byron becomes part of a significant youth movement at Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon retired from driving last season and Dale Earnhardt Jr. plans to do so at the conclusion of this season. Kasey Kahne has been dropped from the No. 5 car Byron will take over.
With Alex Bowman taking over Earnhardt’s No. 88 car and Chase Elliott driving Gordon’s former No. 24, that will be three Hendrick Cup drivers under 25 in Cup next season. The veteran in that group will be Jimmie Johnson, 41.
When Hendrick announced Byron’s hiring last August at Bristol Motor Speedway, he emphasized the need for new drivers in the four-team operation.
“I plan to be in this for a long time,” said Hendrick, 68. “I think we’ve positioned ourselves for the future. I don’t have much concern” regarding this group’s relative inexperience.
Hendrick said Johnson, a seven-time champion on what is now called the Monster Energy Cup Series, has already taken on mentoring his younger teammates. Bowman filled in for several of the races Earnhardt missed last season with concussion symptoms.
“We’ve also got Gordon and Dale Jr.; they’ve got a lot of coaches. The main thing is not to put too much pressure on them,” Hendrick said.
Byron got his start in IRacing, an online simulation of the sport.
“It’s kind of crazy this all started with a video game, but I would recommend that with kids” trying to get into the sport, Byron said.
Byron has been driving the Xfinity series this season for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports. Hendrick said Byron’s performance in Michigan, when he finished a close second to Cup driver Denny Hamlin, convince him Byron was ready for this step.
“Everyone I watched as a kid, I’m now racing,” Byron said. “It’s intense, and I’ll have to match that intensity. It will be challenging at times, but I’m prepared for that.”
Hendrick said it’s possible Byron could drive one or more Cup races in the remainder of this season. He’s particularly impressed with Byron’s’ maturity and discretion. While starting his driving career in high school, Byron was an honor student and an Eagle scout.
“He hasn’t torn up any equipment,” Hendrick said. “He can get a 10th-place car to fifth and a 15th-place car to 10th.”
Asked specifically about how veteran Cup drivers will treat Byron on the track, Hendrick said, “I think if young guys show respect, they’ll show you respect. You race them clean and they’ll race you clean.”
Hendrick was asked about moving Kahne out of the operation. Hendrick is obligated to pay Kahne for the 2018 season and Hendrick is working to find him a new spot with a different race team.
“For whatever reason, we have not performed in that car. I take responsibility myself,” Hendrick said. “Sometimes in that situation, you have to change something.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell