Byron’s dominant run fuels Cup speculation

AP PHOTO • William Byron walks through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series US Cellular 250 auto race Friday at Iowa Speedway in Newton.

AP PHOTO • William Byron walks through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series US Cellular 250 auto race Friday at Iowa Speedway in Newton.

NEWTON — For now, William Byron’s future is in the NASCAR Xfinity series. If he keeps racing as he has, he’ll likely find himself in a Monster Cup ride soon enough.

Byron and the No. 9 JR Motorsports team, in partnership with Hendrick Motorsports, have dominated the Xfinity series the past six weeks.

The 19-year-old Byron has three wins and two more top-three finishes over his last six races. That success, combined with Kasey Kahne’s uncertain future in the No. 5 Cup car for Hendrick, heightened speculation that Byron could fill one of Hendrick’s four planned Cup spots in 2018.

But owner Rick Hendrick ended such talk last weekend, saying Byron would be back in the Xfinity series next season. On Saturday, Byron will race at Iowa Speedway, the site of his first series win last month.

“For me, the focus is on having fast race cars and doing the best we can each week. I’m not worried about what the future holds or when that time comes,” Byron said. “It’s about trying to go out there and compete for wins and prove myself at this level.”

Though still a teenager, it’s hardly surprising to see Byron — now second in the standings — push for a championship so quickly.

He made a name for himself in 2015, winning four of 14 races to take the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship. He moved up to the Camping World truck series last season and won seven times in 23 starts, shattering the mark for wins by a rookie.

All of which caught the attention of Hendrick, whose Cup roster includes Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who will be replaced by Alex Bowman in 2018.

The powerhouse team signed Byron to a multiyear contract in August that began with an Xfinity ride with JRM, much like Elliott’s arrangement in 2014.

“Winning races always helps your cause. But, for me, I feel like I definitely have a future at Hendrick,” Byron said. “They know what’s best for me, and I know I’m ready for anything.”

Elliott won the Xfinity title three years ago in the No. 9 Chevrolet before moving up full time in the Cup in 2016. Byron could follow a similar path.

Byron had some promising qualifying efforts this season, including a pole in Phoenix. But those runs weren’t translating on race day until a trip to Michigan, where Byron qualified fourth and finished second to Denny Hamlin.

The following week, he grabbed the lead with just over 20 laps left to win at Iowa’s short track. He went on to victories at Daytona and at Indianapolis last week.

Byron will be among the favorites to sweep at Iowa, where he also won in the truck series a year ago.

“I really like this racetrack,” Byron said. “It’s good for us to come back with a notebook and be able to lean on that and hopefully improve.”

US CELLULAR 250

Site: Newton, Iowa

Schedule: Saturday, qualifying, 11:05 a.m., race, 2:30 p.m., NBC.

Track: Iowa Speedway (oval, 0.894 miles)

Race distance: 218.75 miles, 250 laps.

Last year: Erik Jones won at Iowa after starting second.

Last race: William Byron took first for the third time in five races.

Fast facts: Byron matched Carl Edwards Jr. with three victories in his first 18 starts. He also tied Kyle Busch with seven top-5s in that stretch and is first in the series with 12 top-10s in his first 18 events. … Elliott Sadler still leads the series however. Sadler, on the strength of 15 top-10 finishes, has a 40-point edge on Byron.

Next race: Zippo 200, Aug. 5, Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, New York.

Online: http://www.nascar.com