By Toby Christie (Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie)
To say that William Byron suffered from a steep learning curve in 2018 after transitioning from the NASCAR Xfinity Series to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series would be a vast understatement. Still, Byron was able to muster together enough results to garner the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award.
For Byron, a driver who had racked up 11 victories in just 57 starts between the NXS and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, the first three races of the year were a little lackluster. Byron finished 23rd at Daytona, 18th at Atlanta and 27th at Las Vegas.
It was a real test of mettle for the then 20-year-old driver, but a week later in Phoenix Byron finally flashed some signs of speed.
Byron started from the 11th position and after utilizing some pit strategy under a caution at lap 194, he inherited the lead. Byron would pace the field for 15 laps before ultimately getting passed by Denny Hamlin on lap 210. However, Byron would hang in there for a solid 12th-place finish.
For the North Carolina native, it just helped reassure the fact that he can get things done behind the wheel of a stock car.
“I mean, I think it just showed myself that I can do it that I can do those restarts up there. I know I have the pace up there to run until our handling kind of took over, but I felt like if we can really start to hone in on what we need a little better we are going to be right there,” Byron said. “It’s going to take a little bit of work, but it was fun to at least be up there a little bit.”
Byron would finish 15th a race later at Auto Club Speedway. A couple of races later, Byron scored his first-career top-10 finish with a 10th-place effort at the difficult Texas Motor Speedway. The top-10 finish was especially sweet as Byron started at the rear of the field after an engine change before the race.
“It was really good for us to get a top 10. We had a good car,” Byron said. “Once the sun came out we weren’t quite as good, I don’t think, but starting in the back this was definitely a good day for us. We had a lot of adversity and kept having to go to the back. So, it’s good to come back from that and get a top 10. It feels awesome. It feels great to get a top 10. It obviously takes a lot of things to happen. We didn’t quite have the speed we wanted to. We were really good in practice but I think some of our weaknesses showed up when the rubber laid down on the track a little bit on the bottom groove. Overall it was a pretty good day and we can definitely build on this.”
Build on it Byron and the No. 24 team did. As Spring gave way to Summer the 24 car began to heat up, but circumstances prevented some of the finishes the team deserved.
Byron led 14 laps at Talladega before getting caught up in a late-race 14-car melee.
Daytona in July was an even worse scenario for the driver. While leading the race at lap 64, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with second place Kyle Busch which sent Busch into the rear of Byron’s car which sent them both crashing out of the race. What could have been a first-career win for Byron turned viciously into a 32nd-place finish.
In July, Byron led 10 laps before ultimately settling for a sixth-place finish in the Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono.
“There are a lot of big positives,” Byron said following his best run of the season. “I feel there are a couple of things we could have worked on and we’ll keep working on those things. Our cars are just getting faster. Now we have the speed to run in the Top 10, which makes it a lot easier to do things and allows us to be more aggressive and allows me to drive the car the way I know how to drive it. I feel like our speed is just starting to get us in a position to be more aggressive, which is really good.”
A week later, Byron finished eighth at Watkins Glen and it looked like the youngster was poised for a big breakout. Then a horrid stretch of races ensued.
Over the next 12 races, Byron didn’t record a single top-15 finish. During this stretch, Byron also logged five DNFs, three of which were crashes and two were motor failures.
Byron would finally get of the Schnide by finishing ninth in the next-to-last race of the season at ISM Raceway in Phoenix.
For the year, Byron racked up four top-10 finishes and ranked 23rd in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship standings. It was an alright rookie campaign, but after what Byron had done in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series it was a little bit of a let down.
Going forward there are huge changes for Byron and the No. 24 team.
Darian Grubb will come off the pit box, and legendary crew chief Chad Knaus will move from the No. 48 team to turn wrenches on Byron’s Camaro. Knaus has aided Jimmie Johnson in all seven of his Cup Series championships.
The Hendrick Motorsports team as a whole — aside from Chase Elliott — have been slumping for about two years. It will be interesting to see if the crew chief change can light a spark under the No. 24.
At the very least, an extra year of experience under the belt should impact Byron greatly next season. Will he win a race? Maybe, maybe not. But I do think for sure Byron will put up more top-five finishes next season than he put up top-10 finishes in 2018.
Toby is the Founder, Editor and go-to man for TobyChristie.com. He is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, Toby is a NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) award winning writer, and has followed NASCAR as a fan since 1993.