NASCAR: Unexpected shift in Hendrick Motorsports’ future?

William Byron and Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
William Byron and Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images) /

Hendrick Motorsports need to replace seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Jimmie Johnson for the 2021 season. Could that prompt more than just a simple replacement?

Days after the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season ended and Kyle Busch became just the second active multi-time champion, the other active multi-time champion, Jimmie Johnson, announced that he would be retiring from full-time competition after the 2020 season, his 19th season as the full-time driver of the #48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

There have been several speculated replacement candidates for the 44-year-old El Cajon, California native, but Hendrick Motorsports have stated that it is not their top priority to name his successor quite yet.

One candidate, one who was named by NASCAR prior to the 2020 season as one of five drivers to watch to potentially replace the seven-time champion, particularly stands out.

That driver? William Byron, who already drives for Rick Hendrick’s team.

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Byron currently drives the #24 Chevrolet, and he has done so since his rookie season in 2018. But there are a few things that make him the ideal candidate to replace his own teammate next year, even though such a scenario would still require Hendrick Motorsports to find another driver.

When Byron arrived at Hendrick Motorsports, he was slated to replace Kasey Kahne behind the wheel of the #5 Chevrolet. While he replaced Kahne in the team’s driver lineup, he did so as Chase Elliott’s replacement behind the wheel of the #24 Chevrolet, and Elliott moved from #24 to #9, the number he used in NASCAR’s lower series and that his father Bill used during most of his racing career.

Elliott is set to continue driving the #9 Chevrolet through at least the 2022 season after signing an extension back in June of 2017, and the other Hendrick Motorsports driver aside of Elliott, Byron and Johnson is Alex Bowman.

Bowman is in a contract year driving the #88 Chevrolet after signing an extension back in August of 2018, while Byron is already under contract with the team for beyond 2020.

Additionally, ahead of the 2019 season, Chad Knaus, who had served as Johnson’s crew chief since his full-time career began in 2002, shifted to the #24 team to work with Byron. The seven-time champion crew chief and Johnson combined for 81 wins during their 17 years together.

The #48 team is just as much his as it is Johnson’s.

It is also worth noting that last October, Ally Financial signed a contract extension to continue serving as the full-time primary sponsor of the #48 Chevrolet through the 2023 season.

So Hendrick Motorsports can essentially pick who they want to drive that car, and Byron is already under contract with the organization, but without any particular tie to the #24, other the fact that it is where he happened to end up when Elliott opted for the #9.

This would put the team in a more practical position of getting Byron under a long-term deal following three years with the team while working in a first-year driver on shorter terms, instead of the other way around.

The only issue that may arise in this respect is the fact that Liberty University have a 12-race deal in place to sponsor Byron, a business communication major at the school, in the 2021 season after extending their contract this past September.

Would this throw a wrench into those plans, or would they continue to sponsor the #24 Chevrolet, albeit without one of their students behind the wheel?

At the end of the day, Johnson’s impending retirement still means that Hendrick Motorsports need to add a driver from outside of their current four-car fold for next year.

But don’t rule out the possibility of them replacing Johnson himself from within, with Byron potentially replacing his own teammate and the organization bringing in a new driver to the #24 team, not the #48 team.

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Who will be driving the #48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports when the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season rolls around? Don’t be surprised if they pull off another number swap and send William Byron and Chad Knaus to the #48 team while placing Jimmie Johnson’s real “replacement” behind the wheel of the #24 Chevrolet.