HAMPTON, Ga. – Kevin Harvick's farewell to Atlanta Motor Speedway provided an emotional example of NASCAR losing another of its biggest names.
The exodus of some of the sport's stars is a concern to Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon, who says he is worried about the growth of the sport. But Gordon says there is reason for hope. Sunday night's rain-shortened race won by William Byron served to shine a spotlight on the emerging star who drives for Hendrick.
The 25-year-old Byron leads the NASCAR Cup Series with four wins, and he moved to the top of the points standings by surviving a spin in the second stage that caused him to fall a lap behind.
At the start of the race, Harvick drove his No. 4 beside the 29 he drove to his first NASCAR win in Atlanta in 2001. The 29 was driven by grand marshal Richard Childress, who was the team owner for Harvick in 2001.
The 29 Chevrolet was built for Dale Earnhardt Sr. before Earnhardt died in a crash at the Daytona 500 weeks earlier. Following the 2001 win in Atlanta, Harvick held three fingers out of his window in tribute to Earnhardt's No. 3, providing a lasting memory for Earnhardt fans.
The retirement of Harvick, 47, after the season removes another popular driver from competition. The sport also has seen such other stars as Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Gordon retire in recent years, creating a void.
Byron, who drives the 24 that Gordon made famous as a four-time Cup Series champion, appears capable of helping to fill the void. Following Sunday night's race, Gordon spoke of Byron with pride, as a team executive and a NASCAR fan.
“To me right now it’s about building superstars and recognizable faces and names,” Gordon said. "That’s what is going to help grow the sport. We’ve lost a lot of them in a short period of time. It’s about building them back up.
“I think William is on the cusp of doing that by going to victory lane and winning races and leading as many laps as he has. That just opens up more doors and opportunities to get him in front of more kind of mainstream media and get his face and name out there to help grow the sport.”
It's notable that Byron has moved to the top of the points race while competing on a Hendrick roster that also includes Alex Bowman, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Larson and Elliott won Cup Series championships in 2021 and 2020, respectively, and Elliott won last summer's race in Atlanta.
Of the Hendrick drivers, only Byron and Larson are assured of playoff spots this year. Elliott and Bowman are still looking for their first 2023 wins.
Byron, who also won Atlanta's spring race in 2022, already has eight career wins but insists he's still learning.
“I just haven’t raced a lot in my career, so getting a later start I think every race is a learning experience,” Byron said, adding he is “still getting better. I thought tonight there were a lot of things I could have done better, pit road speed, decisions, there are still a lot of things you can improve. But we’re on the right track.”
The lessons learned on the track may come easier to Byron than adhering to Gordon's desire to see his young driver promote his team and sport.
“I’m pretty reserved, introverted,” Byron said. “I'm just trying to become more comfortable.”
Gordon said Byron “does an amazing job representing the 24 and Hendrick and the sport in general as a competitor as well as just as a fine young man.
“I tell him to keep doing what he’s doing. But I’ve told our drivers in the past, I want them to reach just slightly outside their comfort zone when it comes to the media and opportunities just so they can open up more doors for their own brand. It helps us sell sponsors and it helps us grow the sport.”
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