BROOKLYN, Mich. — The well-wishers came in waves for 19-year-old William Byron on pit road at Michigan International Speedway. Byron had just driven to within an oh-so-close .012 seconds of his first NASCAR XFINITY Series victory, finishing just a nose behind veteran race winner Denny Hamlin.
Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, stopped over first with a pat on the back. Then came three-time champ Tony Stewart, who took Byron’s ear before his television interview. In each of their remarks, there was an overarching theme.
“I think they were just encouraging me that the time will come and to keep running like that and it’s going to get there. I know it is,” said Byron, who settled for a career-best second place Saturday. “We’ve got to continue to lead laps and be up front there and we’re going to get our chance to win a few of these races, so it’s really exciting to be up there to lead a couple restarts. It’s really cool and hopefully we can keep doing that at Iowa.”
Byron led just once for eight laps, but they came during crunch time in the Irish Hills 250, just before Hamlin took over for the final circuit. That span included a pair of powerful moves on late-race restarts, taking the measure of both Hamlin and Keselowski as he forged ahead with his JR Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet.
His duel with Hamlin over the last trip around the 2-mile track was held in close quarters. Expecting contact through the final bend, Byron left an opening for Hamlin’s No. 20 Toyota down the home stretch.
“You just never know in that situation. You want to bring the car home and at least have a chance to run across the line and see what you got,” said Byron, an alum of the NASCAR Next youth initiative. “Kind of left him a lane in (turns) 3 and 4, but you can second-guess those things as much as you want. We just have to keep moving on and try and win at Iowa.”
Byron’s rapid rise up the NASCAR national series ladder has fueled speculation that he would be considered for a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ride in the near future. He’s currently in the Hendrick Motorsports development system at JRM and has been linked as a candidate for the Hendrick No. 88 team’s vacancy created by Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement at season’s end.
Asked about that potential jump Saturday, Byron kept the focus to his current gig, one that has him in prime real estate in the XFINITY Series standings. He sits third, just behind JR Motorsports teammates Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, who rank first and second respectively.
“I just want to keep running well for JRM and try and win races and compete for a championship,” Byron said when asked about a premier-series leap. “I think to have the three of us in the top three in points is really incredible. I think it shows the consistency of our team. Execution-wise, I think we really execute well — all three teams — and I’ve learned a lot from Elliott and Justin and Michael (Annett) as well. I think we’ll just keep building on that and hopefully be able to compete for a championship.”