The Youth Movement is cyclical, but for the moment it is alive and well in NASCAR. Several veteran drivers have hung up their helmets in the past couple of years—some refusing to say they are retiring—some leaving for a safer haven—some simply getting pushed out as sponsors turn their attention to the 18-35 male demographic and the belief that it is best served with fresh, young faces.
Enter William Byron—age 20.
Byron has not turned a wheel in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition. He has only 57 starts combined in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, but is already being hyped as the heir apparent to Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne. Hendrick Motorsports seems to believe he will ultimately fix all of their issues—along with fellow Young Gun Chase Elliott.
We’ve seen this before and occasionally it is successful. Gordon himself burst onto the scene with a great deal of fanfare and more than lived up to the billing. Buckshot Jones also entered the series with greatly heightened anticipation, and if you’d like we will wait for you to look him up and refresh your memory about who he is.
There is a very real risk that Byron is being rushed into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series well before he is ready, but if the gamble pays off, he has enough years in front of him to post numbers that rival Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Byron will win Rookie of the Year honors in 2018; Hendrick Motorsports is much stronger than either Richard Petty Motorsports or Rick Ware, so the competition with Darrell Wallace Jr. and Ray Black Jr. is not going to be particularly fierce. The real question is how great his fantasy value will be. Last year, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez immediately established their relevance with a host of top-10s. Byron is going to do the same thing in 2018, but given his relative inexperience, he is unlikely to show a lot of consistency.
Byron has already gained attention with speed in an open test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he posted the second fastest time in day one and was near the top of speed charts every time he went out. As impressive as that was, however, there were only 16 drivers in the test and only a few of them were in the league of the top 10.
Last year Byron won four races and showed some versatility in doing so. Two of these came on the flat tracks of Phoenix International Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway; one was on the restrictor-plate, Daytona International Speedway, and the fourth was at Iowa Raceway—a track that behaves like a short course and the similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks.
He did not dominate, however; Byron failed to lead laps in 22 of 33 races—and was in the lead for only a single circuit in two other events. He easily slots into an available opening on most fantasy rosters, but players will want to approach him with caution nonetheless.
2018 Top-25 Fantasy Values
12. McMurray, Jamie
13. Bowyer, Clint
14. Suarez, Daniel
15. Newman, Ryan
16. Busch, Kurt
17. Almirola, Aric
18. Dillon, Austin
19. Stenhouse Jr., Ricky
20. Menard, Paul
21. Bayne, Trevor
22. Dillon, Ty
23. Buescher, Chris
24. Allmendinger, AJ
25. Kahne, Kasey