NEWTON — Before William Byron came to Iowa Speedway in June, his NASCAR Xfinity Series season had been a little more about frustration than anything.
A couple close calls — the closest of which was the week before at Michigan, where he lost to Denny Hamlin by a bumper — plus a pair of crashes at Richmond and Talladega left him with a proverbial monkey on his back.
But then came that race on June 24. He closed out a win after Christopher Bell wrecked ahead of him. Since then? A win at Daytona, seventh at Kentucky, third at New Hampshire and another win last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
His first three career wins have come in the last five weeks, and now he’s back where the run started.
“The last five or six weeks, we’ve been in contention to win basically every race,” Byron said. “We have a formula now. We’re able to follow that each week, and that’s what’s been the biggest key for us.
“For me, I never really relax. I’m always high-strung with what it takes to win. I think it set us on a tear where we know exactly what to do with our racecar.”
Byron has only been on the scene in NASCAR for 2 1/2 years now. He raced in the K&N Pro Series in 2015 before moving to the Camping World Truck Series last season with Kyle Busch Motorsports, and then back to JR Motorsports — where he got his start in Late Models — for this season.
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In 2015, he won four races and had 11 top 10s in 14 starts in the K&N Pro Series East. In 2016, he won seven NCWTS races, but lost out on a shot at the title thanks to a blown engine in the Chase. This year, apart from the three wins, Byron has 12 top 10 finishes in 18 races.
His bonafides may not be decades-long, but they certainly are valid. Byron has more total wins (10) in NCWTS and NXS than he does seasons in a racecar (in his fifth).
Rather than a start in go-karts as an elementary-aged kid like so many others, Byron got the racing bug by watching, and then on iRacing. Byron’s first year in a real racecar — not just online — was in 2013.
The word you’re looking for at this point is, “meteoric.”
“I never thought I’d be able to drive,” Byron said. “iRacing opened the door to see what I could do in a real car. Luckily, when I got in a real car, I was really fast. Some different people took a chance on me, and I was able to do what I needed to do from there.
“It’s a weird way to start racing in the first place, but luckily it worked out for me. I’m thankful for that.”
The 19-year-old’s return to Iowa as the defending race winner comes as he’s a hot topic of conversation in the annual NASCAR Silly Season rumormill.
Byron is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports while competing for JR Motorsports. JRM owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement, plus uncertainty around Kasey Kahne’s future with the team left many to sort of assume Byron would be anointed soon — and probably sooner than later.
Earnhardt’s seat was filled last week by Alex Bowman, who takes over in 2018. While Kahne got his first win since 2014 at the Brickyard 400, that doesn’t necessarily mean he saved his job.
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Enter Byron, who many have pegged for the seat should it be vacated — and if Hendrick deems Byron ready.
The Charlotte, N.C., native laughed when the subject was brought up in an interview this week with The Gazette. It would be impossible to miss the discussion, but like any athlete involved — directly or indirectly — with those kinds of conversations, he does his best to shut it out.
Another win at Iowa Speedway on Saturday isn’t going to turn down the volume.
“I think we’ve been focused on this year,” Byron said. “I know I’m ready for anything. I’ve proven that I think.
“Winning three races this year is something I did not expect. Hopefully that continues to open the door for us.”
The U.S. Cellular 250 is set for 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The race can be seen on NBC.
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