DOVER, Del. — As highly-motivated race car drivers are prone to be, William Byron was admittedly conflicted standing on Dover International Speedway pit road Saturday afternoon following the “Use Your Melon. Drive Sober 200.”
He won the pole position, led laps (62), won the opening stage, and took the checkered flag in third position behind JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier and race winner, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular Ryan Blaney.
But short of a victory, it was more of a “big picture” kind of day for the 19-year old Byron, who jumped from fifth to second — three points behind Allgaier — in the XFINITY Series championship standings heading into next weekend’s elimination race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The bottom four of the 12 playoff drivers will be ousted from championship contention following that race.
Byron boasts a series-best 26 playoff points on the season. But on Saturday after leading the first 62 laps, he got beat off pit road by Blaney during the second round of pit stops and then Allgaier passed him for second place in the final stage of the race — nipping Byron’s chance at a series-best fourth trophy hoist on the season.
Still, Byron smiled after climbing out of his No. 9 AXALTA Chevrolet and seemed content with a solid day after leading laps and adding to his series-high playoff point total.
“Overall, this is kind of the day we needed and we’ll be able to go Charlotte with peace of mind,’’ Byron said.
Last week, Byron finished 18th at Kentucky in the XFINITY Series playoff opener and was 33rd the week before in Chicago – uncharacteristic showings for NASCAR’s highly-touted title favorite only months removed from being named to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Monster Energy Series ride.
So the Dover outcome was a well-timed boost for Byron as the series heads to Charlotte to conclude the first round.
The race winner, Monster Energy playoff contender Blaney, conceded he was very aware of the playoff scenario happening around him.
“The intensity level, you feel,’’ Blaney said. “It’s definitely noticed. You know what they’re going for … I was aware and it was really cool to see the intensity level raised. I like it when it’s really intense from lap one on.’’
Both Byron and Allgaier noted the strength of their JR Motorsports team its effort at Dover. Teammate Elliott Sadler — the regular season points leader — finished ninth and Michael Annett was 11th.
“Happy and flowers and lollipops for sure,’’ a smiling Allgaier said of racing closely for a championship amongst his teammates.
“The cool thing is we have four different race teams, four drivers that are completely different at where they’re at in their careers. …but the cool thing is we all tend to run very evenly and push each other. Very rarely will you see us have an issue amongst the group of us on track. That’s one of the strengths of Junior Motorsports.
“We work really hard and we work really well together and drive each other better. That’s a challenge you have.
“[Team co-owner] Kelly [Earnhardt Miller] has said multiple times, make sure you have the best race cars at the race track and you guys go have fun, battle each other, push as hard as you can, just don’t go wreck each other.”
And in this case, challenge for the championship.