NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer is a Kansas City Chiefs fan, which leads him down an obvious road when assessing William Byron, who rose to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series faster than anyone not named Jeff Gordon.
"Look at Patrick Mahomes," says Bowyer, referring to the Chiefs' quarterback who went from "Who Is He?" to "NFL MVP!" last season. "He comes in and sets the world on fire. But if you take (receivers) Tyreek Hill out and Travis Kelce and some of those guys that caught those balls for those amazing throws, you don't have the results that they had.
"You have to look at the opportunity that is in front of them, the team they are with."
Which is why many will be scrutinizing Byron's performance in Sunday's TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway in Avondale.
He drives for the Rick Hendrick team, the Cup Series' most successful, with 12 championships. His Axalta Chevrolet is No. 24, the number Gordon took to iconic status. And now, after finishing a disappointing 23rd in points in his debut season, Byron has a new crew chief — Chad Knaus — widely credited as mastermind of Jimmie Johnson's record-tying seven Cup titles.
Expectations mean Byron being competitive isn't enough. As Bowyer said of Byron and Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman (of Tucson), "If they don't win pretty soon, they better be looking over their shoulder."
It's more than Byron being with Hendrick, in the 24, led by Knaus. It's how quickly he got there.
Byron didn't begin racing until six years ago, reaching NASCAR's premier series by age 20 — younger than four-time champion and Hall of Famer Gordon. He first show his talent at iRacing, the online simulation that is a training tool for many drivers.
Early success got Byron into NASCAR's Truck tour in 2016, where he was a seven win Rookie of the Year sensation. Hendrick signed him for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team in the 2017 Xfinity Series, which resulted in the championship, four wins (including Phoenix) and the top rookie award.
Byron's rocket to the top put him into the No. 24 last season, where he earned a third consecutive Rookie of the Year trophy.
When Hendrick decided to separate Johnson-Knaus after a winless and tension-filled 2018, he turned Byron over to Knaus, with instructions to run the team "his way."
"Everyone makes a big deal out of that but I don't think it's anything unexpected," said Byron, an online student at Liberty University, which also sponsors him. "Chad does a really nice job of keeping people working together, and putting them in the right spot, so he gets the most out of them."
Does he find the notoriously intense Knaus intimidating?
"No, I don't think so," Byron answered. "It's intimidating enough to be part of the Cup series. I respect him a lot, his opinion, and what he asks me to do."
Byron won his first pole position at February's Daytona 500, just as Knaus had tuned Johnson's car there in 2002 for their first pole. His best finish in three races is 16th, but Byron has already led 65 laps — four more than all of 2018.
"When Mr. H (Hendrick) asked me if I would be interested in doing this, I told him 'Absolutely,'" Knaus said. "I think William's a great little driver. He's got a lot of potential that hasn't been shown yet at the Cup level.
"To be a part of that, and build a team around him that's something he can grow with, I think is going to be a lot of fun. I really enjoy building a team and coaching people up and this is another way to do that."
Johnson, making his Phoenix debut in his striking new No. 48 Ally digital financial services colors, said Bowyer's comment "is probably fair."
"Last year we all knew he was the fastest, youngest driver ever to get into a Cup car, the shortest period of time," Johnson said. "In Year 2, expectations go up, for everyone ... William is young, but his approach to racing and to life is from a wise point of view. He's young on paper but much more mature than people might think.
"I know William wants to be under the gun and have expectations from the outside because he has them on himself. He's a fierce competitor and knows, in his heart, he needs to go out there and win."
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