BROOKLYN, Mich. – Denny Hamlin beat rookie William Byron in a photo finish to capture Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series Irish Hills 250 at Michigan Int’l Speedway.
Hamlin looked to be on cruise control to his first NASCAR XFINITY Series victory of the season after taking the lead during a round of pit stops with about 40 laps left. During the restart with 38 laps remaining Hamlin promptly pulled away from the field, putting more than three seconds between himself and Brad Keselowski.
Things changed drastically with 14 laps left when the caution flag waved for debris in turn three. Hamlin was still in charge with Keselowski, Byron, Paul Menard and Elliott Sadler behind him for the restart with nine laps left.
Hamlin took the outside for the restart, but Keselowski got a huge push from Byron on the inside that moved Keselowski to the front of the field into turn one. In the corner Keselowski’s Ford pushed up the track, opening the bottom for Byron to challenge for the lead.
Down the backstretch Hamlin, now in third, moved in behind Byron and gave him a big push that moved him clear of Keselowski entering turn three. Hamlin slipped back into third, but the next lap Hamlin got a run on Keselowski out of turn two and was able to move back into second as Byron held the top spot.
Byron kept about half a second between himself and Hamlin for the next few laps, but his advantage was erased when Matt Tifft spun out of turn four after a tap from Daniel Hemric with five laps left, leading to the final caution flag of the race.
The race resumed with two laps left with Byron taking the outside with Hamlin on the bottom. Even before they got to the green flag Byron and Hamlin made contact, slightly bouncing off each other as the got up to speed.
Byron and Hamlin stayed side-by-side through the first two corners, but Byron was able to pull clear of Hamlin out of turn two to maintain the lead. Hamlin wasn’t giving up through and as they charged to the white flag he got a big run on Byron.
In turns one and two Hamlin was able to run just a bit lower than Byron, allowing him to drive under the rookie coming out of turn two. Byron ran Hamlin down to the apron on the backstretch as the battle for the lead rocketed into turn three.
Byron appeared to clear Hamlin entering turn three as Sadler, now in third, made a charge to look under Hamlin before slipping back into third. Hamlin, meanwhile, got a big run coming out of turn four as Byron got loose, opening the door for Hamlin to get alongside Byron.
From there it was a drag race, with Hamlin barely beating Byron to the finish line by just .012 of a second to score the victory. The .012-second margin of victory is the closest finish in XFINITY Series history at Michigan.
“The Hisense 4K TV Camry was fast all day. Definitely didn’t want that debris caution at the end. I did see it (the debris) up in turn three and I was just hoping they weren’t going to call it,” said Hamlin.
Hamlin had nothing but praise for Byron after their battle in the final laps for the victory.
“He’s done a great job. Obviously he is one of NASCAR’s next future superstars,” Hamlin said. “I wanted to race him clean, I wasn’t going to turn him or anything like that. I stayed low below him and it got him a little bit loose through one and two and that allowed me to get position. Into turn three we both got sideways. He slid up just enough to let me barely get to that left-rear and it was just enough to drag race past him.”
Byron’s second-place finish was the best of his rookie campaign.
“We were so close. It really hurts to be that close and not win,” Byron admitted. “He got the side draft off of me off of (turn) four and that was the run he needed to the line. I just couldn’t quite get enough back to him to get to the line faster.
“It hurts, but we’ll get one soon. This is how we need to run and we’ll keep running like this.”
Sadler finished third after winning the second stage thanks to pit strategy, earning a playoff point in the process. Keselowski, who won the first stage, took home fourth.
Kyle Busch started from the pole, but made contact with second-starting Keselowski and the wall moments after the green flag waved and spun before making it to turn one. He was able to recover and finish fifth.
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