William Byron shows championship potential in strong Michigan showing

Logan Whitton/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

BROOKLYN, Mich. – William Byron fell just short of his first NASCAR XFINITY Series victory at Michigan International Speedway.

Yet in the end, some of his peers couldn’t help but sing his praises.

Byron, 19, held the lead coming to the white flag of Saturday’s Irish Hills 250, but had Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin in pursuit. The Charlotte, North Carolina native held the top spot through Turns 1 and 2, but ultimately gave way to Hamlin through the race’s final two turns, losing by just .012 seconds at the line – the closest finish for the series at the two-mile oval since the invention of electronic timing and scoring.

Afterward, Byron admitted that Hamlin, a 12-year veteran of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, took advantage of his inexperience over the race’s final lap.

“We were battling really hard, and Denny just schooled me there at the end,” Byron said. “I thought I could side-draft him back to the line, but I needed a few more feet.”

However, while he proved he still has much to learn, Byron’s performance still proved impressive, particularly given the context of his inexperience in the series – or any race car.

Byron started racing just five years ago, at the age of 14. While he competed for JRM in late models, Byron didn’t truly emerge into the NASCAR lexicon until his K&N Pro Series East championship run in 2015, catching the eye of Joe Gibbs Racing and, by affiliation, Kyle Busch Motorsports. The North Carolinian enjoyed a breakout year in 2016, with an incredible seven-win rookie Camping World Truck Series season.

While Byron ultimately fell short of the Truck Series crown, his performance quickly caught the eye of NASCAR’s best. The North Carolinian was announced as a prospect for Hendrick Motorsports at Bristol Motor Speedway in Aug., and moved up to the XFINITY Series with JR Motorsports (JRM) at the start of 2017.

Byron entered Saturday’s race with just 12 XFINITY Series races under his belt. After his 13th – and arguably best – race thus far, both JRM owner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and teammate Elliott Sadler spoke highly of the team’s youngest driver.

“Awesome job by William Byron today,” Sadler told Kickin’ the Tires. “That kid’s a star, and he’s going to be here a long time. He battled one of the best today and almost came away with it. I’m proud of how hard he fought for the win. He came up a little short, but he’ll be in victory lane soon.

While he earned the short-term victory in Saturday’s race, Hamlin complimented Byron’s driving, while admitting that Byron is better poised for long-term success than most drivers his age.

“He (William Byron) did a great job and really I knew he had a really good car,” Hamlin said. “That last long run that we had, he was about to pass me, so he’s done a great job.

“To be at this level at the age he is, it’s a huge advantage for him for the next 20-25 years,” Hamlin continued. “He’s going to be starting his curve a lot earlier. I was 24-25 when I started my NASCAR career. He’s got a big advantage on that. I’m sure by the time he’s (that age) he’ll be contending for Cup championships.”

With summer approaching, Byron sits third in the XFINITY Series standings – 72 markers behind Sadler for the points lead.

More importantly, though, Byron is close to victory lane. As a group of drivers including Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski told him after the race, the rookie knows that a win is within reach if he can maintain his current pace.

“They were just encouraging me that the time will come – keep running like that and it’s going to get there,” Byron’s said of his post-race visitors. “I know it is. We’ve gotta continue to lead laps and get up front there, and we’re going to have a chance to win one of these races.”

Byron will get his next chance when the XFINITY Series heads to Iowa Speedway on June 24.

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