Rick Hendrick owner of Hendrick Motorsports opened more than a few eyes last week at Bristol when he announced that he had just signed Camping World Truck Series driver William Byron to a multi-year contract for the 2017 season. Bryon has all of the makings of one of the stars in the series as the youngster has already won five times this season driving a Toyota truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Even though he is an eighteen year old rookie in the series, he sits on top of the Camping World Truck Series points and will be in the series’ first ever Chase that will eventually crown this season’s champion. He is no stranger to championships as he won the 2015 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship after winning four races, five top-five finishes and 11 top-10 finishes in only 14 races.
Toyota wanted to keep Byron in its stable of drivers but as it turned out there was not an open seat to move him up to next season in either the Xfinity Series or the Sprint Cup Series. Hendrick was able to offer him a full time ride in a Chevrolet with JR Motorsports that he co-owns with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller. It’s one of the best rides in the Xfinity Series as it won the 2014 title, finished second in 2015 and now sits on top of the standings.
Byron’s future was thought to be linked with Toyota but the manufacturer could not create a spot for him. It had just secured a seat for Erik Jones that was another one of Toyota’s up and coming starts in the sport by helping Furniture Row Racing start a second team in the Cup series next season. Jones had been under contract with Joe Gibbs Racing but that organization has all four of its drivers under contract for next season. Jones’ future seems secure with Toyota after next season, as there are already rumors that Jones may be returning to JGR in either 2018 or 2019. Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are under contract with JGR for next season and all four have won at least one race this season and will compete in the Chase for the opportunity to bring another title to the organization to go with the one that Busch claimed last season.
These are four of the most talented drivers in the sport and it would seem that Busch and Edwards will be locked up for years to come which would leave either Hamlin or Kenseth vulnerable as the driver that may have to be let go to make room for the return of Jones to JGR. Hamlin is talking with Gibbs about an extension at this time but Kenseth has said there have not been any talks about his future with the team. Negotiating a contract is not just a driver and an owner sitting down and ironing out the details. It is equally important to a manufacturer to come up with as strong of lineup as it can on race day. There are only so many seats available in the Cup Series and with the number of cars in a race reduced from 43 to 40 this season, the number of quality rides have become tougher to come by. Toyota, Chevrolet and Ford not only have to look at who will be behind of the wheel of one of their teams next season but also what that starting lineup will look like three or four years down the road. The talent pool that can successfully compete at the Cup level is very limited so when a driver comes along that has the ability to succeed in the Cup series, it is up to the manufacturer to help one of their owners to get him under contract.
Of course, there is no guarantee that once the driver is signed that he will make it at the next level. It can take several seasons before a young driver is able to have the success that he had enjoyed in either the Xfinity or Truck Series. Both owners and manufacturers must be patient but this is a sport where patience not only runs thin on the track at times but also with the owners who know that winning and running for championship is what attracts those precious sponsorship dollars.
Event: Pure Michigan 400
Track: Michigan International Speedway (2.0-mile D-shaped oval, 18 degrees of banking)
Date: August 28, 2:00 pm
Defending Race Winner: Matt Kenseth