Labels get applied to circumstances for a reason; there is often a huge element of truth to them. The sophomore slump developed its moniker because more often than not a solid freshman season is followed by a hangover the following year.
William Byron avoided his sophomore slump in 2019.
In fact, he not only avoided the slump, but at certain periods during the season, he was one of the best values in the field. He was in the Fantasy Power Rankings Top 10 in 21 of the 36 weeks of 2019 and ended the year 11th overall.
With 13 top-10s for the season, he had one of the best records for a driver in his cap range – in those more-than 33 percent of his starts, he was one of the greatest differentiators in most fantasy games. Byron was a top-10 choice in Draft Kings 12 times with a cap that was never more than $8,600. He was a top-five choice in the NASCAR.com Fantasy Live game 10 times and among the top 10 on five other occasions.
This is not at all what we expected from the second-year driver when we ranked Byron 19th last year.
Making his run all the more impressive is the fact that Hendrick Motorsports is going through a period of rebuilding. Jimmie Johnson is one year away from retiring largely because he is in the twilight of his career and his results have waned. Alex Bowman has bounced around a bit during his time in NASCAR and has not yet found his place. And Chase Elliott struggled to find consistency; his trouble was often caused by mistakes and deficits with the organization.
As the least experienced driver, Byron could easily have been the least among the HMS four; instead, he established himself as the No. 2 driver and with changes imminently coming to the No. 48, Byron has plenty of time to improve before a spotlight is trained on him.
He won rookie honors in Trucks and Xfinity before doing the same in Cup in 2018. He made the playoffs last year and missed the top 10 by a single position. About the only thing Byron has not done at this level is win – and that should happen sometime in 2020.
Byron finished second twice in 2019. One of these came on the wild card track of Daytona International Speedway, but the other was in Martinsville 2 when he was the only driver who could challenge Martin Truex Jr. for much of that race. He earned top-fives at Indy and Kansas, which are also traditional strongholds for Hendrick, so it is likely that he will excel on a track that reveal an abundance of wins for the organization.
Next year’s Pocono double header could be perfectly suited for him because he is young, his brain is flexible, and no one knows what to expect. If not there, he could be a threat on any of the similarly-configured, 1.5- or 2-mile tracks. With an average finish of 12.3, Texas is his third-best track in that regard. Chicagoland ranks sixth and Auto Club is eighth.
His two best courses during his career have been the 2.5-mile geometric oddities of Indy and Pocono. That suggests he is capable of running well on flat tracks, so Phoenix and New Hampshire have to be tossed into the mix.
There is another scenario that could play out, however, and it is why he is ranked outside the top 10. Having missed the slump in 2019, Byron could struggle in his third full season instead. When he missed the top 10 last year, he was more likely to finish in the high-teens instead of inside the top 15.
If Byron slips just a little, those 16th- to 20th-place finishes could easily become mid-20s and that would make a huge difference at this level. In 2019, Byron finished worse than 22nd only four times and one of these came as the result of an accident at Talladega.
Three Best Tracks
Pocono (9.3 in 4 attempts)
Indy (11.5 in 2)
Texas (12.3 in 4)
Three Worst Tracks
Homestead (31.5 in 2)
Darlington (28.0 in 2)
Talladega (25.8 in 4)
Victories: None, Best Finish of second (Daytona 2, Martinsville 2)
Top-fives: 5 (.139)
Top-10s: 13 (.361)
Top-15s: 17 (.472)
2019 Finishes at or above rank = 16 (44.4%)
2020 Driver Profiles:
14. Aric Almirola
15. Kurt Busch
16. Christopher Bell
17. Ryan Newman
18. Matt DiBenedetto
19. Jimmie Johnson
20. Tyler Reddick
21. Chris Buescher
22. Cole Custer
23. Austin Dillon
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
25. Ryan Preece
26. Ty Dillon
27. Bubba Wallace
28. Michael McDowell
29. Ross Chastain
30. Daniel Suarez