Remember when William Byron picked up the No. 24 ride in 2018? There were no warm-up acts with a cup of coffee in 2017 or anything like that, he just took on the high banks of Daytona as a 20 year old in his first start, driving Jeff Gordon's car.
Sheesh. Talk about a dizzying way to kick things off. Baptism by liquid magma served over a bed of Carolina Reaper peppers.
"I think he's ready," NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip said at the time. "You learn at the level at which you're going to compete, and Byron has shown himself a quick learner. Plus, he fits the Hendrick mold. He has that corporate look — a nice, polite, good-looking young man who fits right in with what Rick (Hendrick) likes and is looking for."
Define quick learner, Darrell?
Nobody expected Byron to vault right to the top of the NASCAR Cup Series instantly, even though he had won the Xfinity Series championship in 2017 and the Truck Series in 2016, as well as the NASCAR K&M Series-East in 2015 as a 17-year old. He was considered an up-and-coming talent in the sport, thus the reason Rick Hendrick was willing to give him that golden seat in NASCAR lore. They don't retire numbers in NASCAR (see Austin Dillon), so somebody was going to have to handle that hot potato steering wheel inside the famed No. 24 car.
Yeah, somebody has to replace Tom Brady this fall in Tampa Bay, too.
With Byron though, one could argue that in the past month, he's hit a hot streak that he never before experienced in his previous five seasons in NASCAR. Let's face it, if he was to keep up this pace, he'd win around eight to 10 races this year, head into the playoffs on a high perch, and could be in position to win it all. Yes he's made the Cup Series postseason four straight previous seasons, but was he really a threat to capture it all? Not really.
He's been kind of a "slightly above average" type of driver, and by Hendrick Motorsports standards — that doesn't cut it. He's had all the resources to be as good as Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, but it hasn't happened up until now. Now, Byron didn't enter this season on the Hendrick hot seat. Certainly not anywhere near where Alex Bowman entered. But, Byron has reacted to this season like the pressure has been there to lift off. His three wins this season leads NASCAR. If he wins it all this year? He'll look back fondly at May as his favorite month in the year 2023.
He's now on four straight top-five finishes on distinctly different types of tracks. It's not like Byron is a road-course ringer who dominated four straight road courses. This month of May list has been diverse. We're talking a career-best matching finish at the Monster Mile at Dover (fourth), a win at the most challenging track on the circuit (Darlington), a career-best runner-up finish at Charlotte on Monday night in the circuit's longest race, and a win at Kansas Speedway at a 1.5-mile long track that is similar to a lot of tracks left in the season (hint, hint, more intermediate-track success to come?).
Something is clicking right now, something very special. Are we witnessing Byron coming into his prime?
You know, in all fairness? Young stars of NASCAR don't always explode from the get go. Kyle Busch won four Cup races in his first three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports. Then he had his breakout season in 2008 when he won eight races. Joey Logano won only two races total in four full-time seasons for Joe Gibbs Racing before switching over to Penske Racing and winning 30 (and counting) and two Cup Series championships (also still counting). Both have obviously become monster competitors in the sport since starting very young in their late teens. And both had to find new teams before things really took off, if you remember. Byron may not have to go that route.
Maybe that's all this is, eh? If you look at May 2023, it certainly seems like we're seeing that metamorphosis in motion.
Everybody and everything has a turning point, and I have the distinct feeling that 10 years from now — when Byron's sitting on 30 or 40 wins with Hendrick — we may look at this past month as the ignition switch on what became a monster career.
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