William Byron moving up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will either break or continue the curse of drivers under the age of 25 being moved up to Cup after lower series success.
It has been speculated for a month 19-year-old William Byron will replace Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 Chevrolet owned by Rick Hendrick after Monday’s announcement that Kahne wasn’t going to be welcomed back next season.
A day after several reports announced Byron will run Cup, Hendrick Motorsports made it official Wednesday and completes the youth movement they’ve been going with for 2018.
Between Byron, 24-year-old Alex Bowman (who will run his third full-season in 2018) and 21-year-old Chase Elliott (currently in his second full-season), the average age is 21. Seven-time champion and Hendrick’s senior driver Jimmie Johnson, 41, bumps the average up five years.
Clear as day the new movement of young drivers has arrived and the future revolves on those drivers to carry the sport and the team’s hall of fame legacy.
To no surprise, fans praised the decision but others are concerned if Byron’s rapid move to Cup after only two seasons in the lower series (one season each in Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series).
Not since Kyle Busch has a driver quickly adapted in different series in a short period of time than Byron has done. His calm and confident personality has been Byron’s biggest strength thus far after already capturing 10 national series wins including three in the Xfinity Series at Iowa, Daytona and Indianapolis.
Last season, an engine failure at Phoenix prevented Byron from making the Camping World Truck Series Championship 4 after winning a rookie record seven races and collected 16 top 10s in 23 starts. Byron finished fifth in the final standings.
After 20 races, Byron trails JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler by 56 points but if the playoffs were to start, his three wins would put him as the number one seed. Byron’s average finish is 9.5 and has finished in the top 10 all but six times.
There’s no denying Byron has become the odds-on favorite to win the series title but fans have seen this story before. Young guys delivering in the lower series but when they move up to Cup, results are hard to come by and become busts.
Three drivers have taken awhile to blossom in the Cup scene and perhaps haven’t reached their full potential except for one driver. Those three are Elliott, Kyle Larson and Joey Logano.
Elliott has yet to score his first win since replacing Jeff Gordon last season despite being a quiet model of consistency with 29 top 10s in 63 starts.
However, fans expected more out of him after a stellar Xfinity Series career that included a championship in 2014. Elliott was ready but the pressure of filling in the footsteps for Gordon has unjustly made him an early disappointment.
His fellow 2016 rookie competitor Chris Buescher—in subpar equipment at Front Row Motorsports last year—won before Elliott which nobody expected to take place.
Larson—one of the drivers labeled as the “Next Jeff Gordon”—won the 2014 Sunoco Cup Series Rookie of the Year but it took him two seasons to finally win a Cup race last August at Michigan and has since won two more times.
Larson has also led the points standings throughout the 2017 season and poised to be a championship contender if he continues to polish his mistakes he committed early in his Cup career.
Before becoming a full-time Cup driver, he ran one season in the Xfinity Series and finished eighth in the standings. His versatile driving style showcases Larson’s natural talent and will continue to grow before decade’s end.
Then there’s Logano. He was rushed into Cup in 2009. By rushed, I mean only ran 19 of 35 Xfinity Series races in 2008 with a win at Kentucky and 14 top-10s.
Joe Gibbs Racing needed a new driver to replace the departing Tony Stewart so they went with a young driver.
The media was crazy for Logano after having tremendous success in USAR (now known as X-1R Pro Cup Series) and K&N Pro Series East but his Cup rookie year wasn’t amazing.
Logano’s average finish was 20th and scored one win at a rain-shortened Loudon at 19 years old.
Afterwards, he was never a contender for wins and it took a move from Joe Gibbs Racing to Team Penske in 2013 to revive his career.
Logano has won 16 times under the Penske banner but it took him five years to prove himself he belonged in Cup after being on the verge of becoming a bust.
This is a fear I have for Byron. He has been successful in his young NASCAR career but my gut feeling is saying the move will hurt his self-esteem due to his age because Byron is accustomed of contending for wins on a regular basis. If he can handle the pressure like he’s done thus far, the sky’s the limit for Byron and will lead the sport to greater heights.
I do think Byron should run at least one more season in the Xfinity Series but the team have enough confidence Byron won’t flop and live up the hype.
Will he be another Logano where it’ll take him years to become a winning driver or will he a rare gem and break the mold of rushed drivers being duds?
NASCAR has seen countess of drivers who were great in the lower series but became tremendous flops. Whether it’s racing for startup teams or not having stellar numbers, it has always taken place.
Some were meant to be great Cup drivers like Johnson who had a mediocre Xfinity Series career at Herzog Motorsports before moving up to Hendrick but guys like Ron Hornaday were just meant to be legendary Truck drivers.
This had me thinking of some drivers who fell victim of either being rushed to Cup or struggled to produce results the team expected out of the young guns.
I thought of five drivers who fit the category and those are Casey Atwood, Jason Leffler, Rob Moroso, Ryan Truex and Brian Vickers.
Atwood was one of the first “Next Jeff Gordon” drivers. He had two wins in the Xfinity Series (then known as Busch Grand National) in 1999 and finished eighth in the 2000 standings. His example is a driver under 20 who wasn’t quite ready to run Cup full-time.
Atwood was 20 years old when he joined the new Dodge powered Evernham Motorsports and was teammates with Chase’s father and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott.
After one season, Atwood was relegated to Evernham’s satellite team Ultra Motorsports due to finishing 26th in points with four top 10 finishes and a 24.8 average finish.
His only great run was Homestead where he led 52 laps and finished third. Atwood’s teammate won the race, his first since the 1994 Southern 500 at Darlington.
Atwood’s sophomore year was awful, finishing 35th in points and scored no top 10s. Worse, his average finish was 29.4 and was replaced by Leffler at Phoenix, the site of his only pole the year before.
After 2002, he only ran two more Cup races and briefly returned in the Xfinity Series with subpar results and disappeared from the NASCAR scene in 2009 at age 29.
Leffler—the oldest out of the five—had a similar rookie season like Atwood when he moved up into Cup in 2001 after spending one full season in Busch, driving for Joe Gibbs.
Leffler scored three poles and four top 10s in 31 starts but ended up 20th in the standings. This should’ve been a warning sign for owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, the team Leffler drove in Cup at age 25.
The three-time USAC Midget champion failed to qualify five times and like Atwood, his best finish was Homestead with a 10th place effort. An average finish of 27.7 and finishing 37th in the standings sent Leffler down to the Truck Series where I felt he was a natural.
Leffler’s 25 top 10s in 38 truck starts from 2002-03 was impressive enough to bring him back to the Busch Series full-time in 2004 where his numbers improved. Leffler won at Nashville and scored 17 top 10s despite not competing in 7-of-34 races that year.
Those turnaround numbers led Gibbs giving Leffler another chance in the Cup Series in 2005. To me, this would’ve been the ideal year for Leffler to run a rookie campaign if he never ran for Ganassi in 2001. However, his second stint validated Leffler being a lower series guy.
His 2005 season was hardly better than 2001. Leffler’s average finish was 27.5 and scored no top 10s, those results led to Gibbs sacking him in August.
The driver that replaced Leffler on a full-time basis? Denny Hamlin.
Leffler would spend the rest of his NASCAR career in the Xfinity Series where he was one of most consistent regulars from 2006-2011 and finished inside the top 10 standings for five straight seasons (2007-2011).
Leffler, 37, was killed June 12, 2013 after crashing in a 410 sprint car race at Bridgeport Speedway in Bridgeport, New Jersey. A few days after running his last NASCAR race at Pocono where he “start and parked.”
Another tragedy happened 22 years before Leffler where a raw talent’s self-esteem took a hit, my number-one concern for Byron.
Moroso ran three full-seasons in the Busch Grand National Series before becoming a Cup rookie at 21 years old. Out of the five drivers, Moroso was the readiest to run the Cup Series.
Six wins, 42 top 10s and a series championship in 1989 after finishing runner-up to Tommy Ellis the year before.
Many speculated Moroso was going to be the next NASCAR legend and battle for championships with the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace but it wasn’t the case.
In the 25 races Moroso ran under his father’s equipment, he failed to finish 15 times and scored one top 10 at Daytona (July race). His average finish was 25.4 in a forgettable rookie class where his closest competitor Jack Pennington ran a partial schedule and later disappearing from NASCAR after 1990.
After another mid-pack run at North Wilkesboro Sept. 30, 1990, Moroso lost his life in a highway crash near Mooresville, North Carolina, four days after his 22nd birthday. Moroso was driving under the influence before the accident took place.
This is a case where raw talent became a victim of the high demands in Cup and poorly handled the pressure. Today, Moroso is just a what-if scenario that defined NASCAR in the late 80s and early 90s.
Out of all the five drivers, Truex was the worst-case example where not running full-time—let alone any NASCAR sanctioned races—the year before joining Cup hit him hard.
Truex won back-to-back K&N Pro Series East championships in 2009 and 2010 before running a partial schedule in 2011-12 in the Xfinity Series. He had some success with 9 top-10 finishes including a runner-up effort at Dover in 2012, driving for Gibbs.
The following year, he only ran four national series races including three in Cup for Phoenix Racing and HScott Motorsports. His best finish was 32nd at Dover.
Then out of the blue—at 22 years old—Truex acquired a full-time ride at BK Racing in 2014. It was doomed from the start because he didn’t deserve a Cup ride. He needed to run more lower series races before jumping to the highest level. The results proved it.
Truex failed to qualify three times and his average start and finish was 35th. His Cup career died when he was injured in a practice crash at Michigan Aug. 16 and was let go a month later. Truex’s best finish was 20th at Pocono (August).
Since then, he has struggled finding a full-time ride until this season. Truex, 25, currently drives for Shigeaki Hattori’s No. 16 Toyota where he’s seventh in points including scoring a third-place finish at Pocono.
Truex’s career did have a positive outcome and may have a chance to revive his NASCAR career if he continues to run well in the Truck Series.
Byron’s climb to Cup isn’t the first time Hendrick took a chance at a driver under 25, everyone knows the story of Chase Elliott and Jeff Gordon but in between those two, one has now been forgotten and his name was Brian Vickers.
Under the wings of Rick’s late son Ricky, Vickers went from a mid-pack driver to a champion overnight. Vickers won the 2003 Busch Series title at 20 years old highlighted with three wins and 21 top-10 finishes. The next year, he moved up to Hendrick’s Cup team and didn’t lived up to the hype.
Out of the five, Vickers was the most successful with three Cup wins in 14 seasons but left a lot on the table. Granted the No. 25 car was never the strongest car out of the Hendrick operation for many years but he still managed to score 23 top-10 finishes in 113 starts. It still wasn’t enough as Hendrick kicked Vickers to the curb in favor of Casey Mears after 2006.
Since then, his career has been a roller coaster ride. Vickers missed 13 races in 2007 for startup Red Bull Racing but made the Chase two years later where he had his most successful season. Six poles, 13-tops and a win at Michigan led to a career-high 12th place in points.
Comparatively speaking, Vickers was Logano before Logano. It took him a few years to kickstart his career but at the turn of the decade, his health began to decline.
A series of blood clots and heart problems sidelined Vickers and ultimately ended his racing career before the age of 35.
I felt had they kept Vickers one more season in the Busch Series and if Terry Labonte stepped out of the No. 5 after 2004 like he did in real life, that would’ve helped Vickers and maybe revere him as a solid Cup driver today.
Hendrick Motorsports’ addition of Byron has ton of potential of being another gem but the fear of another dud is inescapable.
Perhaps have Byron run a few Cup races before the season ends but for another Chevy team as the “Chase Elliott Method” (running a 5th car for an upcoming rookie driver before running full-time next season) is no longer allowed. We’ll just have to see how Byron does next season if he was ready to compete with the big boys.
This an exciting time for NASCAR’s future seeing excellent drivers like Byron moving up the ladder. However, fans should always have concerns about those young drivers because if history proved anything, success doesn’t come overnight. The 19-year-old is one guy who may break the curse if his trend continues in 2018.