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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.”

Matt Tifft fastest in first of 2 Xfinity practices at Kentucky Speedway

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Matt Tifft ran 25 laps during Friday afternoon’s first of two NASCAR Xfinity Series practice sessions at Kentucky Speedway.

But it was just one lap that mattered the most, as Tifft (180.427 mph) emerged from the 55-minute practice as the fastest in the 36 cars that took to the track.

Brian Scott was second (179.253 mph), followed by Ryan Preece (178.465), Brandon Jones (178.288), Justin Allgaier (178.271), Ben Kennedy (178.136), Elliott Sadler (177.573), Tyler Reddick (177.544), Spencer Gallagher Jr. (177.503) and Brennan Poole (177.381).

Interestingly enough, only four of the top-10 were playoff contenders. The seven-race Xfinity playoffs begin with Saturday night’s VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300.

There will be one more practice session today from 6:30-7:25 p.m. ET.

Qualifying and the race are Saturday.

Click here for the full practice speed grid.

Christopher Bell fastest in final Truck practice at New Hampshire

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Christopher Bell was fastest in the second and final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice session Friday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bell covered the 1.058-mile flat track with a top speed of 132.877 mph.

Ben Rhodes was second (132.301 mph), followed by Todd Gilliland (132.213), Matt Crafton (132.122) and Noah Gragson (132.071).

Sixth through 10th were Johnny Sauter (132.016), Austin Cindric (131.865), Grant Enfinger (131.683), Ryan Truex (131.656) and Kaz Grala ((131.533).

Qualifying for the UNOH 175 takes place Saturday at 10 a.m. ET, while the green flag for the race drops three hours later at 1 p.m. ET. Both qualifying and the race will be televised on FoxSports1.

Click here for the full speed grid from the final Truck practice.

New Hampshire to host September spectacular next year

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LOUDON, New Hampshire – Although the Cup series will not race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway next September, the track still will have racing.

Officials from New Hampshire Motor Speedway and NASCAR announced Friday that the track will host multiple series Sept. 21-22. The track will host:

  • A 250-lap NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour race, the longest race in series history.
  • A 125-lap NASCAR K&N Pro Series race that will include series champions from the Mexico and Europe series.
  • A 100-lap NASCAR Pinty’s Series race in the first race for the Canadian series in the United States.

Practice and qualifying will take place on Sept. 21. Racing will be Sept. 22.

“We are creating a short-track weekend that I think fans from across the Northeast are going to be so excited about,” said David McGrath, executive vice president and general manager of the speedway.

McGrath estimates the track will attract 15,000 – 20,000 fans for the inaugural event.

“We will start there and certainly hope to grow there,” McGrath said. “We certainly have the space to do it.”

Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, has high hopes for this event.

“Anytime we enter into a conversation about a special event like this, it’s done thinking about the long term and building,” Cassidy said. “I would like to look at this as certainly a building block on a big-time weekend for racing.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ready to move past Chicagoland woes

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was blunt as he looked back at last weekend’s 25th-place finish in the opening playoff race.

“It’s the worst playoff race I’ve ever had,’’ he said before quickly adding, “actually, it was the only playoff race I ever had.’’

A week after he hit the wall, had a commitment line violation and sped on pit road to finish last among the 16 playoff drivers, Stenhouse heads to a New Hampshire Motor Speedway that has been unkind to him. His average finish of 20.44 at this track is the worst among the playoff contenders.

It’s easy to peg Stenhouse, whose best finish at New Hampshire is ninth, as one of the four drivers who won’t advance to the second round after next weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway.

Stenhouse says don’t end his title hopes just yet.

“I think there are tracks you look at where you feel like, ‘Hey, we don’t run well there,’ ‘’ Stenhouse said Friday. “There are tracks you look at and average finishes aren’t as good as what you really ran, and I think New Hampshire is one of those race tracks for us.

“I can count two or three times where we’ve been in the top 10 and we come down on our last pit stop and we’ve had freak accidents on pit road that we end up restarting tail end. I think that skews a little bit on the finishes, so I think we’ve got confidence that we can run with those cars that we’re chasing.’’

He better or his playoff experience will be brief. He enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) four points out of the cutoff spot.

“We keep our head up because we’re only four points out, so I think that’s the key message around the shop this week,’’ Stenhouse said. “We had, by far, the worst race we could have ever thought of having and we’re still close. I think that’s the key.”

For him to turn in a good run — and a good finish Sunday — Stenhouse said the key will be where he starts and how strong he is on restarts.

“We’ve always been really good on the long runs and you get quite a few long runs here,’’ said Stenhouse, who was 24th on the speed chart after Friday’s practice. “That seems to be our strong suit. Restarts seem to be some of the areas that we need to get better at. I was on the plane ride up today just looking at our notes from this last race and that was it. 

“We were strong on the long runs, needed to get our restarts better, and need to qualify better. These first two stages you can really run without pitting, so that first stage it’s going to be important to qualify well and make sure we put ourselves in a position to maybe get some stage points if it does go green, and our car is good on the long runs.’’

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