CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rick Hendrick first met William Byron as a local Charlotte teenager, fan of Hendrick Motorsports and budding NASCAR driver.
Something about the 15-year-old struck Hendrick, who recognized a young talent with a potentially bright future in NASCAR. Hendrick snagged Byron away from the Toyota camp in 2016, promoted him to the Cup Series in 2018 when he was 20 years old and fresh off an Xfinity Series championship and gave him the tools to become a star.
It's paid off as Byron heads to Phoenix Raceway this week with a shot at winning his first Cup title. With a Cup Series-high six wins this season, Byron seemed a lock to make the championship finale but had to squeeze out every position Sunday at Martinsville Speedway to edge Denny Hamlin for the fourth spot in the winner-take-all title race.
It's the kind of performance Hendrick expected out of Byron, who he likens to the late David Pearson, a three-time Cup champion and Hall of Famer. In a heavyweight Hendrick lineup that includes Cup champions Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, as well as Alex Bowman, Hendrick believes Byron is his hardest worker and has proved all his early doubters wrong.
Byron in September won the 300th race for the Hendrick organization.
“When I moved him into the No. 24, I had a lot of doubters. Not in our company, but I read all the stuff that people said he wasn't ready," Hendrick said. "To see him blossom and turn into the driver he has, it’s been phenomenal. William has always been pretty calculating, and he doesn’t drive over his head and he’s won races this year by making some aggressive moves.
“He’s the guy you want your daughter to marry. He’s smart. He studies, he's in the simulator, he's planning and he really thinks he’s the best driver out there."
Should Byron win the title on Sunday, he'd be the first North Carolina-born and raised Cup champion since Dale Jarrett in 1999.
A LOOK AT NASCAR'S FINAL FOUR
No. 12 Ford, Team Penske
DRIVER: Ryan Blaney
BORN: Dec. 31, 1993
HOMETOWN: High Point, North Carolina
CREW CHIEF: Jonathan Hassler
RECORD AT PHOENIX: 0 for 15, but Blaney has back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix, including last year when he finished second to champion teammate Joey Logano.
NOTEWORTHY: Blaney became the championship favorite after a stellar third round of the playoffs with finishes of sixth, second and then a win last Sunday at Martinsville. He's not finished lower than fourth at Phoenix in four consecutive races there.
No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing
DRIVER: Christopher Bell
Born: Dec. 16, 1994
HOMETOWN: Norman, Oklahoma
CREW CHIEF: Adam Stevens
RECORD AT PHOENIX: 0 for 7 with four top-10 finishes.
NOTEWORTHY: Bell won at Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago to lock into the finale for the second consecutive year. He finished 10th a year ago as he raced for the title and finished third in the final standings. This is Bell's fourth full year in the Cup Series.
No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
DRIVER: Kyle Larson
BORN: July 31, 1992
HOMETOWN: Elk Grove, California
CREW CHIEF: Cliff Daniels
RECORD AT PHOENIX: 1 for 18 with 11 top-10 finishes. Won at Phoenix in 2021 to win his first Cup title.
NOTEWORTHY: Larson has four wins this season, two in the playoffs. He won the playoff opener at Darlington and then was the first driver locked into the championship round with a win at Las Vegas three races ago. That Las Vegas victory gave Larson and his crew additional time over their competitors to prepare for Phoenix.
No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
DRIVER: William Byron
BORN: Nov. 29, 1996
HOMETOWN: Charlotte, North Carolina
CREW CHIEF: Rudy Fugle
RECORD AT PHOENIX: 1 for 11 with a victory in the spring race earlier this year.
NOTEWORTHY: This has been Byron's breakout year with a career-best six wins. Should he win the championship, it would be the first title for the No. 24 Chevrolet since Jeff Gordon's fourth title in 2001.