By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
As the NASCAR Xfinity Series moved on to the Michigan International Speedway for the Irish Hills 250, William Byron was looking for some consistency after having up and down finishes in recent weeks.
As his No. 9 Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro team unloaded off the truck, it was clear that Byron and his JR Motorsports teammates had speed. In the first practice, he was seventh quick. Byron was 13th on the speed charts in the final practice. In qualifying, he started fourth.
Pole winner Kyle Busch elected to have Byron start behind him. Byron drove for Busch en-route to becoming 2016 Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Busch’s strategy backfired as Brad Keselowski squeezed behind him and Byron. Contact then sent Busch into the outside wall and spinning back across the track.
After the incident, Byron sought reassurance from his crew whether he did anything wrong. His crew chief, Dave Elenz, calmed his driver on the radio, “There was nothing you could have done.”
The remainder of Stage 1 was quiet for Byron. He slipped backward slightly to finish the stage in fifth. Byron earned six Championship Points as a result.
Stage 2, like Stage 1, got off to a chaotic start. A four-car accident ended the day for Michael Annett, one of Byron’s JR Motorsports teammates.
The rest of the stage was relatively quiet until the caution waved for debris with four laps to go. Elenz called Byron onto pit road just before pit road closed.
However, a miscommunication between the team and NASCAR led the team to believe that the race would restart with one lap left in the stage, influencing their decision to pit. The race did not restart, giving Elliott Sadler, another JR Motorsports teammate, the win for Stage 2. Byron settled for 10th, earning another Championship Point.
In the final stage, Byron slowly worked his way up through the field. On a restart with nine laps to go, he worked his way below both Denny Hamlin and Keselowski to take the lead. Byron pulled away until another caution with four laps to go.
With Sadler fourth, Byron elected to restart in the high lane. Byron cleared Hamlin on the restart. Hamlin fought hard, getting back underneath the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender in turns one and two. Byron drove defensively, taking Hamlin down to the apron.
Entering turn three, both Byron and Hamlin went wide, allowing Sadler to look below Hamlin. However, Hamlin powered through and side-drafted Byron. Exiting turn four, Hamlin and Byron were side-by-side for the lead. When they reached the line, Hamlin took the checkered by 0.012 seconds over Byron.
This was Byron’s third career top five finish in 13 starts, as well as his best-career finish to date in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He remains third in points, 72 points behind Sadler, and 160 points ahead of the cutoff for the Playoffs.
When Byron got out of the car, both Sadler and Keselowski talked with the 19-year-old driver. Keselowski gave Byron a pat on the back before three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and Stewart Hass Racing team co-owner, Tony Stewart stopped by to congratulate him on the run he had.
Byron was disappointed, but stayed optimistic and kept his head up,
“We were so close, it really hurts to be that close and not win. He (Hamlin) got the side-draft off me off of four and that’s what he needed. I just didn’t have quite enough to get back to him at the line. It was a great job by my Liberty University team. It hurts but, we’ll get one soon. That’s how we need to run, and we’ll keep running like this.”
Now Byron, Elenz, and their JR Motorsports team will focus on next weekend’s American Ethanol E15 250 at Iowa Speedway.