Chase Elliott and William Byron are both beacons of light when it comes to the future of Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Cup Series. Both drivers have had success on the national series level at a young age and are potentially primed for a deep playoff run in 2020.
However, despite both making the playoffs last season, neither one advanced to the Championship 4. For Byron, it was his first foray into the playoffs and came on the heels of a season in which he racked up five Busch Pole Awards with crew chief Chad Knaus. For Elliott, it was the third straight time he fell short of the ultimate goal.
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This all begs the question: Which young HMS star will take his respective ride deepest into the playoffs during the 2020 campaign? NASCAR.com’s Jonathan Merryman and George Winkler are here to pick sides.
Winkler: Chase Elliott. After a dramatic comeback win at the Charlotte Road Course, Elliott’s championship chances fizzled out by the Round of 8 in 2019. It was the third straight season in which he couldn’t quite break through for a chance to race for a championship.
However, I think Elliott will come into the 2020 season motivated to get back on track toward the Championship 4. He has some statistical factors in his favor: 1. Four of his six career Cup wins have come on current playoff tracks, 2. His pit crew posted the third-best times during the playoffs last season, so a repeat performance would ensure he’s getting set up for success. Throw in some good luck from the mechanical side of things, and Elliott should be well on his way.
Also, when compared to Byron, Elliott has an edge in experience and that includes winning experience, as Byron has yet to get to Victory Lane in his young career while Elliott has been there six times. The ability to finish off a win could come in handy during the win-and-advance playoffs to make up for a misstep earlier in a playoff round. I would not be surprised to see Elliott put it all together and make it to the Championship 4 this season and win the whole thing.
Merryman: William Byron. The difference this year for William Byron is between the ears. The future of Hendrick Motorsports enters his second year with crew chief Chad Knaus after two full seasons of learning in the NASCAR Cup Series. Bottom line, this all equates to confidence.
Byron is known to be a quick study winning early and often in every level of stock-car racing. NASCAR’s highest level proved to be more of a challenge for Byron in Year 1, but in 2019 we saw a leap in performance. He scored five top-five finishes, 13 top 10s and five poles. I think that progression continues this year as the Byron/Knaus duo continues its quest for a win in the Cup Series.
In the end, it comes down to a simple formula. Knaus has never failed to make the playoffs as a crew chief and has won the Cup Series title seven times. Byron has a ton of raw talent, and more importantly he is willing to listen. Couple that with a third year behind the wheel and I believe Byron and Knaus will up the ante in the Hendrick camp this year and may prove to be a dark horse in Phoenix racing for the championship.