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William Byron to replace Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports

William Byron poses after winning the Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway on July 1, 2017.
Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Hendrick Motorsports will promote William Byron to the Monster Energy Cup Series next season to replace the departing Kasey Kahne, the team announced Wednesday.

The 19-year-old Byron is currently a rookie in the second-tier Xfinity Series, where he has three wins and ranks second in points driving for JR Motorsports, co-owned by Rick Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller.

"I think that just speaks to his talent,” Hendrick said. “You can't teach speed and you can't train talent and he's got all the other qualities of smart, dedicated culture, just work ethic. He's got the whole package."

Byron will drive the No. 5 Chevrolet with primary sponsorship from Liberty University and Axalta, with both companies currently backing him in Xfinity. Libery also sponsored Byron previously in the Camping World Truck Series.

Having only raced actual cars for five years, Byron is regarded as a prodigy by industry insiders and heralded as one of NASCAR’s top prospects. His seven Truck Series wins as a rookie last year set a NASCAR national touring record for a first-year driver, a performance that compelled team owner Hendrick to recruit him away from Toyota-backed Kyle Busch Motorsports and place him in a JRM Xfinity car this season.

“When I told my parents that I wanted to drive race cars, they supported me and believed I could do it,” Byron said. “Without them, there’s no way this would be possible. I’m going to do all I can to make my family, my sponsors and my teammates proud and represent them all in the right way.”

Byron takes over for Kahne, who Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday is being let go at the end of this season. Kahne, 37, had one year remaining on his contract, but a combination of underwhelming results and a lack of sponsorship prompted Hendrick to make the change.

Since Byron joined the organization under a multi-year contract at the beginning of the 2017 season, Hendrick executives have viewed him has an option to replace Kahne, whose status with the team has been tenuous.

"I have to take responsibility for that," Hendrick said regarding why Kahne has struggled. "For whatever reason, we have not performed and I take the blame myself. We just haven't gotten the job done like we should, and so sometimes when you have those kinds of situations you have to change something up to get a fresh start."

Initially, there was apprehension within the organization that it may too soon to elevate Byron after just a single season in NASCAR’s No. 2 division, sources told SB Nation. But the teenager’s recent results — he’s won three of the past seven Xfinity races and emerged as a championship favorite — along with his long-term potential and good rapport with sponsors were factors that could not be ignored.

Byron’s advancement comes with Hendrick amid a transition period. Kahne’s departure after six years with the team follows Earnhardt Jr. announcing in April he would retire from full-time competition at the end of the current season and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon retiring after the 2015 season.

In 2018, the Hendrick lineup will span the gamut of experience. Along with seven-time Cup champion and team mainstay Jimmie Johnson, 41, it also consists of Byron, Alex Bowman, 24, and Chase Elliott, 21, none of whom have competed in more than two full Cup seasons.

Johnson and Elliott, who replaced Gordon, each recently signed multiyear extensions. Bowman is under contract through 2019 and was named in July to replace the retiring Earnhardt Jr. as driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet.