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Xfinity playoffs loom for William Byron, but Cup future is secure no matter what

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William Byron “didn’t expect” any of this.

The 19-year-old didn’t expect to be promoted to the NASCAR Cup Series by Hendrick Motorsports next year after just one season in the Xfinity Series.

He was also “pretty surprised” by the phone call he received from Rick Hendrick last Thursday as he prepared to race at Road America.

Hendrick wanted to know how he felt about taking over the No. 24 in 2018 as Chase Elliott transitioned to his family’s famous No. 9.

“I was kind of expecting to be whatever number I was going to be,” Byron told NBC Sports just a few hours before Hendrick announced Liberty University would sponsor Byron and his team for 12 races in 2018 and 2019. “It was definitely a surprise, but a good one.”

Other than telling his parents, Byron had to keep the news a secret  until it was officially announced.

Before a press release announced the news just after 7:30 p.m. ET, Byron and Elliott shook their heads at their situation.

“I knew it was kind of funny nobody had any idea about it and Chase and I were kind of joking about that yesterday right before it came out,” Byron said. “We were kind of laughing about how nobody was going to expect this one. It’s pretty neat.”

Now the formalities over what Byron is doing next year are over. The JR Motorsports driver still has 10 races, seven of them in the playoffs, before he can devote much attention his future.

With three wins (Iowa I, Daytona II and Indianapolis) the rookie doesn’t have to worry about being locked into the playoffs.

All he has to worry about is getting through Saturday’s race at Darlington Raceway as smoothly as possible and then races at Richmond and Chicagoland Speedway before the playoffs begin in Kentucky.

“Just an opportunity to get prepared the best we can for this last stretch of races and do the best we can,” Byron said. “We want to win this championship really bad. We’ve got a job to do. We’re ready for it and we’ve been putting a lot into it. Had a couple of good test sessions the last few weeks to prepare for the playoffs in an Xfinity car and hopefully everyone on our 9 team can have a really good weekend here at Darlington.”

But Darlington isn’t a track Byron visited in his one full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. However, he had a two-day test there in May, his experience on iRacing and the advice of the many drivers at Hendrick and JRM to lean on when it comes to tackling the track “Too Tough to Tame.”

With its patented “Darlington stripe,” Byron got pretty pointed advice from his team owner, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

” ‘Hey, you’re gonna hit the wall at some point,” Byron recounted Earnhardt telling him. ” ‘You might as well expect it, not be worried about it and be able to shake it off and go on to the next lap and really find that rhythm to be good around there.’ ”

Surprisingly, it took awhile for Byron’s No. 9 Chevrolet to get its first stripe during his May test at Darlington.

“It actually took until the second day,” he said. “During testing you’re kind of more precise and you have more time to figure things out. It’s easier to stay off the wall. When we get back there, when the track is rubbered up and it’s a little slicker it’s going be tough to stay off the wall. But we’ll try our best.”

Once the playoffs arrive, Byron will tap into the thoughts and feelings he’s kept “reserved” since last November. In the last race of the second round of the Truck playoffs, Byron was leading at Phoenix Raceway with 12 laps to go when his engine gave out.

Combined with an eighth-place finish at Martinsville and a sixth at Texas, the DNF kept the six-time winner from advancing to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While Byron won the race, he had to watch Johnny Sauter celebrate winning the title.

“It’s kind of showed me what it’s like to lose a championship,” Byron said. “It was out of our control. It wasn’t a mistake, it wasn’t lack of performance. We were leading the race and we just had an engine blow up. I think going into it it’s just added motivation for knowing what it’s like to lose one and knowing how much it means. It’s going to be a chip on my shoulder and I’ll use that for an edge.

“I’ve kind of reserved that for something to use for a little motivation until the end of this year. Hopefully that is able to apply for us. Who knows, maybe we can win Phoenix or something and kind of get redemption.”

Not that he needs it.

After two years of full-time competition in NASCAR, just over five years after he was asking for iRacing advice on YouTube, Byron is secure in a future he “would never have imagined.”

Cup starting lineup at Martinsville Speedway

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Martin Truex Jr. will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway after qualifying was canceled by rain and snow Saturday.

“It’s definitely a big advantage to start out front,” Truex said. “First pit box obviously, everyone knows it’s a big deal here and that’s where you want to be so you get that clean stall in and out and not get torn up on pit road.”

The lineup was set by car owner points.

Kyle Busch will join Truex on the front row.

Row 2 will feature Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Teammate Ryan Blaney starts fifth.

Click here for starting lineup

Martinsville Truck race postponed to Sunday after Cup race

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The Alpha Energy Solutions 250 Truck race at Martinsville has been postponed until Sunday afternoon, following the Cup race.

Ben Rhodes led the field to green 2:05 p.m. and held the lead until Mike Senica stalled on the track. Rhodes led the first 23 laps until precipitation red flagged the event at 2:17.

The Truck race will be televised on FS1.

Martin Truex Jr. sweeps Martinsville Cup practice

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After posting the fastest single lap and quickest 10-lap average in the first practice, Martin Truex. Jr. also topped the fastest lap chart in final practice for the STP 500 with a speed of 95.415 mph.

Also repeating his performance from the first practice, Brad Keselowski was second on the leaderboard. Keselowski was fast on long runs with the quickest 10-lap average of 94.579 mph.

Sophomore Daniel Suarez was notably fast. His lap of 95.588 mph was third on the chart.

Kyle Busch (95.122) and Ryan Newman (94.756) rounded out the top five.

Jimmie Johnson (93.831) was hoping to carry over momentum from last week’s top 1o at Auto Club, but struggled to find single lap speed. He landed 28th on the speed chart.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel hopped entering turn three with 33 minutes remaining. He rolled out a backup car and will start at the back regardless of where he qualifies.

Click here for the full final practice times.

History looms for the Wood Brothers

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Glen Wood first came to Martinsville, Virgina in November 1953, making the short 30-minute drive from Stuart for his NASCAR debut in a family owned car. Nearly 65 years later, the famed Woods Brothers are still racing the iconic No. 21 on the half-mile bullring.

The torch has since been passed to Glen’s sons, but the history remains.

“Our dad came here and raced,” Eddie Wood said in a press release before the STP 500. “He raced here in the fifties and it’s just a special, special place and knowing that the Ford Fusions ran really well last year here that gives you a lot of confidence. I’m sure it gives Paul (Menard) a lot of confidence, but it’s just a special, special place.”

Last fall, Ryan Blaney returned the 21 to the top 10 on the team’s home track for the first time in 12 years. He finished eighth in the First Data 400. This year, Blaney turned the car over to Menard and as the series comes to Martinsville for the first of two races this year, the legacy continues.

“The pressure is all what you make of it,” Menard said. “I know a couple things – I’ve got a great team behind me. We’re gonna have a fast Ford and we’re gonna have a lot of fans cheering on the 21 car, so you can think about that every waking second you’re up here, or you can go to work and do your business. It’s obviously an honor to drive this car and to be a part of the Wood family driving the 21 at Martinsville, and I’m really gonna think about that when I put my firesuit on, but once you get the helmet on it’s all business.”

The gravity of protecting the Wood Brothers’ legend at Martinsville is increased by the fact that this week marks NASCAR’s first short track race of the season and a return to its grassroots. It is easy to feel the history of racing on this little track nestled in rural Virginia—not only for the iconic team, but the entire field.

“It’s getting back to grassroots,” Menard said. “Over half the guys, probably more than that, started racing at short tracks with late models somewhere. We were running 25 laps back then versus 500 now, but the stage racing is kind of like a couple of heat races before the A Main, so you try to get your points when you can and be smart about things when you can and let it rip when you can.”

“You can race here year after year, race after race and there’s no way anybody can mess this race up,” Eddie Wood said. “This is just always a great race because it’s tight and it’s grassroots, it’s NASCAR roots.”

The STP 500 is not just another race for the Wood Brothers. On a track that puts a premium on mechanical grip and driver ability, as opposed to flat out horsepower, Menard has greater control over his fate. That is both good and bad news, because a milestone has been within reach for the past 27 races –  the team’s 100th win.

“It would be huge,” Menard said of the 100th win. “I’ll take it anywhere. We started at Daytona and didn’t get it there, and we’ll keep working until we get it. Martinsville would be a huge one for us, obviously, and if we do that, we’ll have another one for the museum down the road.”