Over the last half decade, Hendrick Motorsports has steadily built its future.
In 2016, Chase Elliott joined full-time to replace retiring NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon.
Then in 2018, William Byron and Alex Bowman came on board – Byron replacing Kasey Kahne, Bowman replacing the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And entering 2021, with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson off to new adventures and the arrival of Kyle Larson, the future appears to be complete.
Now comes the challenge of continuing the organization’s legacy of excellence.
“It’s definitely hit us,” the 23-year-old Byron said in a Thursday video conference. “Seeing Chase go out there and win the championship like that was definitely a sign that we’re capable. The bar has been set for sure.
“Things have really evolved. I think about the first year when I was here in 2018 – how many growing pains there were for me, but also the race team to find our footing with three ‘new’ drivers and one veteran guy.
“Now, it’s four ‘new’ guys – and three of us have been here for a while now and established our trends and feelings inside the team and what we want in our race cars. The bar has been set, and it’s about going out there to achieve that.”
But specifically for Byron and his No. 24 team, there is still one major change to play out entering 2021.
Chad Knaus, seven-time champion crew chief and Byron’s own crew chief for the past two seasons, has moved to an executive role as Hendrick’s vice president of competition.
The duo got to Victory Lane in August’s regular season finale at Daytona, which was Byron’s first Cup win and Knaus’ first and only Cup win without Johnson as his driver.
Knaus’ replacement is someone Byron knows well.
Rudy Fugle, a multi-time champion crew chief in the Camping World Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports, helped Byron earn a series-best seven wins in 2016 at KBM.
Back then, Byron was just 18 years old and only three years into his real-world career after learning the sport through iRacing.
Now, he reunites with Fugle as a more seasoned driver.
“I’ve learned a lot of different styles (with crew chiefs), but I’ve learned quite a few things with Chad that were different than maybe what I did with Rudy at KBM,” Byron said. “It’s kind of (about) meshing the two styles together. Rudy said that I’ve matured since I’ve worked with him. I was really young and really kind of naive when I was in the Truck Series at 17, 18 years old.
“A lot has changed since then, but at the same time, we can definitely apply a lot of the things we did back then in our communication and our style together. I don’t think it will take us too long to get where we were back then and also apply some of the new things, too.”
With Fugle on board, Byron hopes to build on the accomplishments he’s had in his Cup career: Back-to-back playoff berths, five poles in 2019, and the aforementioned breakthrough win at Daytona.
But as he noted, the bar has been set – for both his organization and for himself.
“It’s about being a consistent threat,” he said. “Being somebody that each week – each track we go to is not really a weakness, and we can identify some of those small details that take us to that top five or (top) six group of teams that get to the (Round of 8) and then hopefully in the (Championship 4). Figuring out how to make that next step, to not just be a one-time winner each year.”