No pressure, kid. Charlotte’s William Byron, 19, gets iconic ride for rookie season

Charlotte’s William Byron will be in an iconic car during his rookie season with Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 – Jeff Gordon’s famed No. 24.
Charlotte’s William Byron will be in an iconic car during his rookie season with Hendrick Motorsports in 2017 – Jeff Gordon’s famed No. 24. AP

Last Thursday evening, William Byron was hanging out at home when he got a phone call he likely won’t forget anytime soon.

It was Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, calling to deliver Byron some good news: Next year, for his rookie season racing in the NASCAR Cup series, he’ll be driving one of the sport’s most iconic cars.

“Mr. Hendrick called and asked me what my thoughts were on driving the No. 24 next year,” Byron told the Observer Tuesday. “I was just really excited about that, and I’m ready for it. Just thankful that they’re giving me that chance to succeed.”

On Tuesday, that news became official. Hendrick Motorsports announced that Byron, a 19-year-old Charlotte native, will start his career in the No. 24 Chevrolet made famous by Gordon, who drove that car from 1992 to 2015, winning four Cup championships and three Daytona 500s.

After Gordon’s retirement in 2015, rising star Chase Elliott took over the No. 24.

24 car
The No. 24 was driven by NASCAR great Jeff Gordon before Chase Elliott took it over for the 2016 season, after Gordon retired as a driver. Matt Slocum AP

Also on Tuesday night, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Elliott’s Chevy will carry the No. 9 next year, a number made famous by his NASCAR Hall of Fame father, Bill Elliott.

“I wasn’t sure I’d ever drive the ‘9’ again,” said a statement from Elliott, 21, who drove the No. 9 to the 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series title. “It’s a huge deal to my family and everyone back home (in Georgia), and I hope all of our fans will be pumped to see it back on the race track.

“There’s a legacy attached to that number, and I want to carry it on.”

Bill Elliott
NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott made the No. 9 famous when he drove it early in his Cup series career. MARK FOLEY AP

It’s a family legacy as much as one of excellence, and it dates back to 1976, the first year the elder Elliott raced it in the Cup series. He’d go on to win the Cup championship in 1988 in the same car. Now his son has the chance to do the same.

As for Byron, he told the Observer on Tuesday that he isn’t intimidated by the number; rather, he’s excited to prove that he deserves it, that he can be the next great driver for Hendrick Motorsports, which is currently undergoing a youth movement of sorts. With Byron and Elliott in tow, Jimmie Johnson will be the lone elder statesmen driving for the team come 2018.

But that doesn’t scare Hendrick, who is promoting Byron up to the Cup series after just one season as an Xfinity driver. In that same announcement, Hendrick said of Byron, “The ‘fit factor’ is something I’ve always believed in, and that’s what I see with William and our organization. He reminds me a lot of Jeff at that age with regard to being a special talent and having a great head on his shoulders.”

Back to that relationship between Byron and Gordon: It was about this time last year that they met for the first time when the two chatted in Uptown. Byron was an aspiring NASCAR Xfinity Series driver, and Gordon said he should sign with Hendrick Motorsports.

He did, and a year later, he’s earned a spot in the Cup series – that, and a chance to reward the driver who helped jumpstart his career.

“It’s special to come full circle,” Byron said, “and to have him believe in me like this and use his number and try to succeed with it.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks