Hendrick Motorsports continued its movement toward young drivers, announcing that William Byron will drive the No. 5 car in 2018.
Byron, who turns 20 in November, has three wins as a JR Motorsports rookie in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and will replace the struggling Kasey Kahne. Team owner Rick Hendrick announced Monday that the team would release Kahne at the end of the 2017 season.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Byron, who is second in the Xfinity standings. “Mr. Hendrick has built such a great team. The people at Hendrick Motorsports have dedicated their lives to giving their drivers the best chance to win every weekend.
“I have a responsibility to them to work hard and put everything I have into this opportunity. They need to know I’m always giving 100 percent because that’s what they do.”
Paint company Axalta and Liberty University, which have sponsored Byron this year at JR Motorsports, will combine to sponsor a majority of the races for Byron at the Cup level next season.
Byron joins Alex Bowman, 24, and Chase Elliott, 21, in a four-car 2018 stable anchored by seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. The 41-year-old Johnson, who agreed to a three-year extension in June, is the only driver among them with a Cup victory.
Having set a rookie record with seven wins last season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Byron was eliminated from championship contention when his engine failed in the next-to-last race at Phoenix. He already had signed as a development driver with Hendrick Motorsports in August 2016, and the announcement Wednesday continues his meteoric rise to the top level in NASCAR.
Byron is in just his fifth full season of racing. His first season in full-bodied stock cars was 2014, when he started driving a late model for JR Motorsports. He won the 2015 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship driving for team owner Harry Scott before joining Kyle Busch Motorsports for the 2016 truck season.
“At every step, William has proven how quickly he can adapt,” Hendrick said. “Some drivers have raw talent and some have a strong work ethic. William has both.
“It’s impressive to see a young guy who never gets rattled and instinctively knows how to communicate with his team. That level of commitment, poise and pure ability is rare at any age. I think he’s just scratching the surface.”
Hendrick, who hasn’t named a crew chief for Byron next year, said Wednesday morning that he doesn’t have much of a concern with his stable of young drivers. Bowman and Elliott have nearly won Cup races, and Byron has proved he can win races despite not having much experience.
“He’s surprised us every time he gets in a car,” Hendrick said. “My goal is not to let too much pressure be on him, to let him go out and have fun and learn, and we’ll try to get better as an organization. … If William continues to do what he’s done in every series he’s been in, he’ll adapt fine and he’ll learn.
“You might as well let him learn in what he’s going to be driving for years to come.”
Byron will drive Hendrick car that has traditionally struggled.
“I have to take responsibility for that,” Hendrick said. “For whatever reason, we have not performed in that car. I take the blame myself. We just haven’t gotten the job done like we should.
“Sometimes when you have those kind of situations, you have to change something up to get a fresh start. … I’m not blaming anybody — crew chiefs or drivers. For whatever reason, we weren’t hitting it.”