Nineteen-year-old rookie William Byron delivered Dale Earnhardt Jr. a winning retirement gift, claiming the Xfinity Series championship Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, edging JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler to take the title in NASCAR’s No. 2 division.
Using traffic to his advantage, Byron ran down and passed Sadler with eight laps remaining to finish highest among the four championship-eligible drivers. Byron placed third overall, with Sadler eighth, Justin Allgaier 12th in another JRM entry, and Daniel Hemric of Richard Childress Racing 34th.
“I don’t think I breathed for the last 20 laps, that was incredible,” Byron said. “(Sadler) raced me clean. We raced hard for it. I can’t believe this.”
Cole Custer dominated the season-ending race and cruised to his first Xfinity win by 15.4 seconds over second-place Sam Hornish Jr. Custer, who is also a 19-year-old-rookie, led 182 of a possible 200 laps.
Byron’s triumph added to what is already an emotional weekend for his boss, who co-owns JRM along with his sister and Cup Series team owner Rick Hendrick. Earnhardt is making his final Cup start in Sunday’s race, capping an 18-year career that’s seen him win 14 most popular driver awards and whose celebrity is rivaled by few within sports.
“Man, that is tough watching those guys battle like that together,” Earnhardt said. “William did a great job running an awesome race. ... I know Elliott is probably really disappointed. It’s hard to watch any of your guys lose one, but at least we will be taking the trophy back to Mooresville (N.C.) tonight.”
With Hemric falling multiple laps behind due to a mechanical failure and Allgaier never emerging as a serious contender, that left Byron and Sadler to decide the championship with the teammates staging a tense battle over the final 50 laps.
Sadler eventually passed Byron and put some distance between them, but when Sadler struggled to pass Ryan Preece for the third position that allowed Byron to close. Byron would then re-pass Sadler, who grew increasingly agitated with Preece and pancaked the wall trying to get around.
Afterward, Sadler confronted Preece with officials having to separate the drivers. Preece would apologize for holding Sadler up, but defended his actions saying he was racing for position and was not instructed by his team to move over.
“Frustrating end to the night, to be that close to a NASCAR championship and to be raced by somebody that was not racing for anything,” Sadler said. “Just very devastating to me right now to have one taken away from you like that.
“Four out of the last six years we finished second in the points, and tonight is the closest I've ever been to winning a championship.”
Heralded as one of NASCAR’s rising stars, Byron has only raced competitively since he was 15 and is considered a prodigy because of how quickly he adapts. He will move to Cup next season, where he will drive one of Hendrick’s four cars on a full-time basis, replacing Kasey Kahne.
“He is the total package,” Earnhardt said. “He came in as rookie and drove like a veteran and never made any mistakes.”