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Rookie Byron, Thrilling Lilly Diabetes 250 'Pass Eye Test' with Flying Colors at IMS

As a baby-faced emerging star basked in the glory of his continued ascendance in stock car racing, NASCAR smiled along with 19-year-old William Byron after he won the XFINITY Series Lilly Diabetes 250 on Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A new IMS-specific rules package with horsepower-diminishing restrictor plates as well as air duct and spoiler modifications to alter drafting meant less speed but closer and far more entertaining racing with records in lead changes (16) and different leaders (eight).

“I think a great race is the objective,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR Vice President of Competition. “I think what fans saw today was that. Certainly I think it passed the eye test.”

And JR Motorsports driver Byron sure passes that test, too. Byron, whose congratulation line Saturday included boss Dale Earnhardt Jr., is seemingly on a fast track to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after his third win of the season. Last year, he won seven races in the Camping World Truck Series while driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“It shows you why he’s got an incredible future,” O’Donnell said. “For us, you look at this race and you look at who won it, and it was a terrific winner for the sport, as well.”

Byron’s No. 9 Liberty University Chevrolet fended off a late challenge from 2011 Brickyard 400 winner Paul Menard, who conceded his No. 2 Richmond/Menards Chevrolet wasn’t as quick in Turn 1 and couldn’t make up the difference on the remainder of the 2.5-mile oval. The .108-second gap between those cars was a series record for closest margin of victory at IMS. And Byron became the series’ youngest winner at the famed track at 19 years, 7 months and 23 days.

“At the end, I was just thinking about the (right-front) tire,” Byron said. “Probably with about five (laps) to go, I reset my mind and said, ‘You know what, it doesn’t matter. If it blows, it blows. Whatever. I don’t care. If you’re leading at Indy, you can’t pass up that opportunity to pit.’ I just felt like we had to stay out there, we had nothing to lose.”

He wasn’t the only one concerned about that tire.

“I was shaking the whole time, especially the last five laps,” said Byron’s crew chief, Dave Elenz. “‘The tires are going to go away. The (No.) 2 is going to pass us.’ But he figured out how to back up to the (No.) 2 and manage the runs he was getting.”

When the tire held, Byron burned the rubber that remained by smoking some donuts on the front straightaway after taking the checkered flag. Byron, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, grew up watching the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis 500 with dreams of one day racing at the famous track.

“This the first time I’ve come here, a couple of days ago,” he said. “It’s such a special place, just walking into the place. I’ve watched a lot of races here on TV, and seeing the history and to make laps around here is just really special. To see the front stretch, how narrow it is with grandstands on both sides when you come down the front straight, it’s a really special place. It’s neat to get a win and does a lot for us this year and hopefully propels us to a championship.”

JR Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler, more than twice Byron’s age at 42, has a 40-point XFINITY Series lead on the young challenger in second. While Byron is experiencing all of this for the first time, Sadler became a full-time Cup driver since 1999.

Byron passed Sadler with 16 laps remaining in the 100-lap race, then thanked Menard for racing him clean at the end. Menard paid the winner an understated compliment.

“I think he’s going to be OK,” Menard said.

Byron said he thought he and two-time defending champion Kyle Busch had the two best cars. Busch led a race-high 44 laps, but pitted late in an alternative strategy and was only able to climb back to 12th place.

Busch, also the two-time defending Brickyard 400 winner, quickly bounced back by going out and winning the pole for the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 on Sunday.

“I respect Kyle a lot because he’s so competitive,” Byron said. “I’m starting to feel like I can keep up with him.”

The Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 starts at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday. Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for all 2017 IMS events, including the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400, and for more information on all events.

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