Q&A with Rick Hendrick and new #5 driver William Byron
William, when did you and Mr. Hendrick first talk about the opportunity for you to go to the NASCAR Cup Series?
WB: Really for me the first time was this Sunday it actually came about pretty quickly and was just really excited for the opportunity and really excited to get going and it's been an incredible couple years for me to sign on with them, with Mr. H last year with Hendrick Motorsports and then to break for JRM this year and have good success with them and to be able to build a foundation there for the future. So it's been a great thing for me, I'm really ready for the future and excited to finish the rest of this year as well.
RH: I met with William Sunday night and he didn't know why we were meeting. I said William, how would you like – are you ready, would you like to drive in Cup next year and he said ‘I'm ready.' I mean there was no hesitation and we're just really excited, it was a special moment, he had his dad with him, Marshall Carlson was over at the house and just to see his face and the excitement there. Those were the real special moments when you can break the news.
What have you seen from William that makes you confident that he's ready to take this next step?
RH: I've known William I guess since he was 14 or 15 years old and watched him. I think the thing that impressed me so much with William was you know you look at the fact that he won all those races in the truck series, rookie of the year, youngest guy to win those kind of races and then you look at the Xfinity job he's done this year. Youngest guy at Indy, youngest winner, how he goes to the front so quick, how he picks up on things. You know Ryan Pemberton told me the first time he sat down in the car in Phoenix, the first time in an Xfinity car – second lap he was the top of the board. So he's fast and all that. That speaks volumes to his talent in the car. I think what impressed me probably more than anything about William, his last year as a senior at Country Day, one of the toughest schools here, private schools in Charlotte, he won the K&N series, he was an honor student, he was taking college courses and he became an Eagle Scout. When you accomplish all that and fit it in to a year and you excel in every area, that takes tremendous commitment, drive and determination. We see he's got the talent. His character is unbelievable, very, very bright. He spends all of his time either studying or iRacing, in a simulator or in a racecar. His rapid rate of success has just blown us all away.
It was also announced this morning that Axalta and Liberty University will follow William into the NASCAR Cup Series as primary sponsors. William, what's been your experience working with these two partners and what is their support moving forward as a driver?
About a week ago you and reps from Liberty University were there to unveil scheme for William at Darlington honoring your son (Ricky Hendrick). What conversations did you have with Jerry Falwell Jr. about the potential of sponsoring William moving up to the Cup Series?
WB: I think for me it's really easy to focus when you have guys as determined as our No. 9 group is. I think I've been fortunate to have people like that around me the last couple years so for me I think we're really focused on Mid-Ohio this weekend. We've been doing a lot of Mid-Ohio simulator work for there and trying to improve for the road courses so I think with the wins we've had this year, it's kind of allowed us to start to prepare for the playoffs. We've got a test going on with some new cars and stuff we're going to have so really excited about that.
RH: As far as last week was special for me to unveil that paint scheme. I want to thank Kelly and L.W. (Miller), Dale and Joe Mattus all came up with the idea to honor my son. It meant a tremendous amount to me. It meant a lot to have Jerry and his family there at the hall of fame. You know it's been a great relationship. We're working with the business school, there's an automotive curriculum there that our folks are involved in and we have a lot of interns that are working with us. So you know, I mentioned it to Jerry then that we may be wanting to move William up and he said they want to come along. It's great to have people that you deal with like Liberty and Axalta that have a lot of faith in William and believe in him and their good partners who I do business with off the track. But they're great people, the school is amazing and we're getting some good folks for our automotive group out of that school.
William, what are your thoughts on the transition to the Cup Series?
WB: I think definitely it's the top level of racing here and really everything that I've watched as a kid, I'm starting to race against those guys so for me it's definitely going to be intense and you're going to have to match that intensity, but I feel like I've got great people around me and I've got really a golden opportunity here at Hendrick Motorsports and it's something as a kid I've grown up aspiring to do this. For me it's going to be a lot of fun, it's going to be challenging at times, but I know that and I'm prepared for that, so I just look forward to racing those guys and learning from them and I've had some conversations with Jimmie and some different guys here at Hendrick Motorsports and just knowing kind of what the landscape is going to be like at that level and just trying to understand it, so I'll spend as much time as I can around the team and just be ready to go next year.
RH: I think that when I watch him race and he's raced against Kyle and Joey and the guys in the Cup Series, he's raced with them. Now, I think when you move up and you're a young guy, you show the veterans respect and they'll show you respect. You race them clean, they'll race you clean. If you come in and you try to bulldoze your way in and you're a hotshot, then they'll take you to school. But most of the guys that race in that series, they race clean; they race hard, but they race clean. William has already raced against those guys, they know him. Several of them that don't drive for us have made comments to me about how good he is, how smooth he is, how clean a driver he is, and I think to get respect, you've got to give respect, so I don't foresee any different than when Jeff Gordon moved up or Jimmie Johnson moved up, Chase Elliott. William will be the same age Chase was when he moved up and Chase came out and did a great job, no problems, so I look for this to be on the same course. I don't think he'll have any problems. We know the competition is tough, but he's going to learn in the series that he's going to be in for a long time.
Mr. H, was there a specific race or a specific moment that you realized, ‘Hey, he's ready now, let's do this'?
Is the plan still for Axalta to be on both cars or is that something Axalta will shift over to William's car and you'll need to find additional sponsorship for the 88?
RH: No, they will be on both cars.
There's been a lot of talk in the industry of “reset” for teams in terms of financial with sponsorship. Is that kind of how you view it, would you use those words and how much of a factor does that play in who you examined for your possible drivers for your openings this year?
RH: We're always, as a sport, looking for ways to save money, so the cost to race has gone up and that's no secret, so all the team owners – and NASCAR – are looking for ways to save some money. Usually if you can work with people you work with off the track, it's a lot easier. We're fortunate we've got some good partners that have been with us and been with us a long time. In our business, we just want to win. Our brand is all about trying to win races and grow for the future. I plan to be in this a long time. I'm real excited about having a guy that's won as much as William has. I love the dedication that he's shown and Chase and then Alex. I think we're positioning ourselves for the future. We want to be here, I've been in it a long time and I want to see our organization grow and grow with these talented drivers.
We always ask young drivers when they move up, “What are your goals? What are your concerns?” But as a team owner, going into next year, you've got three guys that are under 25 years of age. What is your biggest concern with all the change that's gone on at Hendrick Motorsports in the last couple of years. Is it that the expectations will be too great for these young guys and you don't want them to believe what they're reading and stuff like that? What's your biggest concern?
RH: I don't really have much of a concern. Alex got in the car when Dale was out, sat on the pole at Phoenix, could have, should have won the race, was fast and running in the top three or four in Michigan, we had a plug wire problem, Chase should have won three or four races last year, lead the race, finish second a bunch of times, we had a problem in the pits one time with a jack, one time we took more tires than everybody else, but very competitive and made the Chase. William, look, he has surprised us every time he get sin the car. My goal is not to let too much pressure be on him, to let him go out and have fun and learn and we'll try to get better as an organization. We've got Jimmie Johnson, who's a seven-time champion and won three races this year, he will be a mentor to all three of them, already is, kind of taking the lead here. But we still have Jeff Gordon involved and Dale Earnhardt is going to be involved, he's still going to be involved with the team, so they've got a lot of coaches. But the main thing is just not putting too much pressure on him and let him go out and learn and if William continues to do what he's done in every series he's been in, he'll adapt fine and he'll learn and you might as well let him learn in what he's going to be driving for years to come. I'm excited. I love to watch. I love to watch the veterans, but I love to watch the young guys have an opportunity, so that's fun for me.
Will there be any changes at crew chief?
RH: Our plan right now is we want to race as hard as we can the rest of the year. Right now we have three guys in the (playoffs) and Greg (Ives) is doing a good job, Keith (Rodden) is doing a good job. I think you get ahead of yourself. I'm happy with the teams right now. I want to see Kasey have a shot, work as hard as I can to give him everything we can do for him and I also want to see William win the championship. We're set pretty well right now. As of right now we are good.
Was this performance-based with the No. 5 car?
RH: I have to take responsibility for that. For whatever reason we have not performed in that car. I'll take the blame myself for whatever reason. We just haven't gotten the job done like we should. Sometimes when you have those situations you just have to change something up to get a fresh start. I take responsibility for that. I'm not blaming anybody, crew chief or driver. For whatever reason we weren't hitting it.
Were you ever surprised by your success?
WB: It's definitely surprising. I didn't expect it out of myself. I feel like I've put the work into to it and I'm learning on the job. That's been the biggest thing for me is to learn from the best people I can have around me. So I have a lot of good people around me and I'm going to continue that. That's what I was so excited about when I signed with (Hendrick Motorsports) last year. Just looking forward to the future. It definitely is surreal because I have pictures on my phone and my pictures and I were looking at those pictures a couple of years ago when I was just bummed I didn't get to go to the race track and race every week so now I have that opportunity and it's really special.
Was this at all a financial decision?
RH: First of all, I have an obligation to Kasey so I'm paying two drivers and I'm also trying to help Kasey in another situation that we could be involved with helping another team. Therefore, it's not much the money it's about the future and building for the future, getting a fresh start. We talked to people, we got close to some deals, we had some deals that drug out too long and it wasn't fair to Kasey or me. Kasey and I talked constantly about having deadline to have something done but when William is running like William is running, for me, I don't do this for the money. I do this to win and it's our brand. I'm investing in the future all the time. I signed William with no sponsors and was going to run him regardless and that's been the plan with Chase, with William, with Jeff Gordon – that's been the history of our company.
Are there any plans to get William Byron or Alex Bowman into Cup cars this season or XFINITY cars next season?
RH: We haven't really gotten to that point yet. We talked about some Xfinity next year. There's two schools of thought there. Some people think it's good to get more track time. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have said they think the young guys should just stick to what he's going to drive, it might confuse him when he's trying to debrief. We haven't made that decision yet. I think Alex has had more time in the cars so there is probably an opportunity to run some races. We haven't made that decision yet. As far as the rest of this year, William is eligible to run some race but we haven't gotten there yet. We just don't know. It's just too soon to make those decisions. We want to focus right now on winning the Xfinity championship with William and hopefully Dale can get in, win at Michigan or win a race here. Our goal is to get as many cars into the Chase as we can and then go after the championship on both sides.
How different is it to have an educational institution (Liberty University) as a partner?
WB: I think it's really special to have Liberty. They've obviously shown their commitment to the sport and they've supported me through each series I've been through, ever since late models. I got out of legend cars and they were the reason I was able to get into late models and race with JRM. It's been good and awesome to have them on the car. This is what Mr. Falwell really envisioned when he sat down with me in 2014 to make it to the top level now and hopefully win them a championship would be really cool.
RH: Liberty exploded with it being the largest Christian university in the world and the largest university in Virginia -- almost 100,000 online students. And, again, we started a program with Liberty in the automotive business and their business school and we have 13 interns working with us this year. One of our general managers is one of our most successful deals that's come up through the ranks out of Liberty, super successful, and they've just grown some terrific people for us. The automotive curriculum will now be available online to almost 100,000 people so it's a great partnership and of course they started with William, we got involved. It's a terrific school. We're excited about it.
Has it been a dream getting to be a part of Hendrick Motorsports?
WB: It's been really cool. I've been able to participate in a few activities and things we've been doing on the side so it's been neat to understand and learn the culture. Honestly, I've been with JRM mainly so I've been spending most of the time over at JR Motorsports and learning the guys over there. As the weeks continue, I'll probably learn more about the system and be able to understand what's going on her more, but right now it's focused on JRM and this year. As a kid, this is the race shop that I would drive by and look in the windows. Actually, in the 5/24 (shop), they have the window there and I would walk up to that. So it's pretty cool to be on the other side of it next year.
Mr. Hendrick, what would is your advice to William during this transition?
RH: Just not get ahead of yourself and focus on the job at hand and let us worry about the rest of us but try to win that championship. Dale, Kelley and L.W. at JRM have done an unbelievable job of putting together our goal up there to grow young crew members and grow crew chiefs, grow drivers and you look at the track record all the way back to Brad, Chase and now William. It's hard to believe that it was just about a year ago at Bristol that William and I went into the media center and everybody was asking me ‘You think he's ready for Xfinity? He's been in the truck series. Do you think he's ready? He's kind of young.' Now, one year later, we're talking about the Cup series. I think that speaks to his talent. You can't teach speed and you can't train talent and he's got all those other qualities – smart, dedicated, cultured – just work ethic. He's got the whole package.
You mentioned working together with a team for Kasey?
RH: I'm not going to mention the team, but I know there are several situations that we're talking to, kind of an alliance, which would be good for everyone. We're working on it, we've been working on it, and we'll just see how it develops.
Did you consider switching car numbers with new drivers?
RH: Not now, we're kind of comfortable. The numbers have been here for a while. You never say never, but right now we're sticking with what we have.
Do you have any sense of what will happen with the No. 9 team at JR Motorsports?
RH: The plan up there is to run four cars and I don't know how that's going to shake out yet, but that's the plan. L.W., Dale, Kelley and I have been talking, but the plan is to run four. Joe (Matus) has done a great job, Kelley and L.W., it amazes me they can put that many cars on the track and be that competitive. It's been a lot of hard work, but they've proven that they can put cars out there that can win. We're just kind of open, one brick at a time. We haven't made those decisions yet.
William, do you give any thought to how surreal it is to race these drivers in the real world that you used to race online? We saw Landon Cassill's tweet.
WB: I think that was pretty cool, seeing that tweet. I didn't even remember doing that, but that's pretty cool to kind of see how far it's come and see the support there. I think I was asking how to go faster, so that's usually what we ask about as race car drivers. It's really neat. iRacing was the platform for me that I was able to start racing in and understand the cars and understand all the driving aspects, so for me I think it's kind of crazy that everything started on a video game, but I think it's something that I really would promote to young kids coming up is to get involved, if you can't get in a real race car, to get on iRacing and you can do it and you don't have to, I guess, have all the contacts and everything to get in a real race car.
I raced, there was one race with Travis Pastrana, that was pretty cool. He was racing in the XFINITY Series and he was just trying to actually learn and I was kind of a fly on the wall and just racing against him and everything. Other than that I just raced against the community on there. You'd be surprised, there's some really good race car drivers on there. Me and Kyle Larson were racing a few months back, so you never know who you're going to see on there.
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