Brooklyn — After driving door-to-door through turns, bumping and grinding with rookie William Byron for the lead and eventually risking a drive along the track apron for the closest win all-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Michigan International Speedway, veteran Denny Hamlin was asked what he was doing when he was Byron’s age.
“At 19, I was working at a Subway, making sandwiches," said Hamlin, who has 29 wins in the NASCAR Cup series and 201 top-10 finishes.
Byron is yet to race in the Cup series. He is yet to win in the Xfinity Series.
And minutes after Hamlin nipped him by .012 seconds — the sixth closest win all-time in the series since the advent of electronic timing — to win the Irish Hills 250, Byron was greeted by NASCAR royalty getting out of his car.
With four NASCAR Cup championships between them, the retired driver Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth after leading for much of the Irish Hills 250, moved quickly to approach the teenager.
“I think they were just encouraging me that the time will come,” said Byron, a North Carolinian who got interested in NASCAR as a 6-year-old watching TV. He later raced in a simulator with considerable success. “And, you know, keep running like that and it will get there.”
Hamlin had a significant lead with 16 laps remaining, but caution flags closed the field and let Keselowski and series leader Elliott Sadler, another Cup series veteran from years past, back into the race.
Into the mix came Byron.
Hamlin admitted his focus was on Keselowski, who qualified second, had a fast car and led the most laps, 54 of 120.
“I felt that I wanted to race the nine, more than the 22,” Hamlin said, referring to the car numbers of Byron and Keselowski, respectively.
On a restart, from the second row, Hamlin said he decided to push Byron’s car, rather than Keselowski’s, from behind to give him the lead. But then he had to beat Bryon, while Keselowski’s car seemed to have less pace overall in the final stage of the race.
After another late-race yellow flag, Hamlin and Byron started side-by-side in the front row, with Keselowski pushing Hamlin from behind and Sadler pushing Byron.
Hamlin described a thrilling two-lap duel, in detail:
“We just drag raced all of the way to (Turn) 1,” he said. “We were banging doors into Turn 1.
“I tried to hold it wide open through 1 and 2 on the bottom, but I just got a little bit loose. He was able to clear us.
“And I knew from that point it was all about hanging in. I needed to have a perfect (turns) 3 and 4 to make sure I could draft to him, up the front stretch.
“That’s exactly what I did.”
Then Hamlin made the veteran’s move, spoiling air near the Xfinity Series rookie’s car, getting him a little “squirrelly” and reducing his pace.
“I put him in somewhat of a bad aero spot there by showing my nose a little bit low; just got him a little loose, just enough for me to get by him,” Hamlin said.
At that juncture, closing in on the finish line, the cars seemed glued by the doors and fenders, with neither in the lead.
Hamlin was so low he was on the flat apron at the bottom of the track, with Byron just above.
“The crazy part was we went so low, there was dust and stuff flying off the tires. We almost wrecked because we had so much trash on our tires,” he said.
“I think that was key for me, because he got just as much trash and he got up the race track and I was able to hang on to his rear quarter panel, just by an inch or two, and that gave me the advantage I needed.”
Hamlin led 34 laps of the race. Byron eight.
“It was a lot of fun,” Byron said. “Just didn’t quite have enough.
“In the last couple of laps, he was getting the draft off of me and he was able to suck back into us, and got to our inside.
“I thought we were really in good position into (Turn) 3, and he just had enough air down there to get to the side of us,” he said. “And it was just a race to the line, after that.”
Hamlin has seen enough of Byron to know he is soon likely to become one of NASCAR’s new young lions in the Cup series. Byron turns 20 in November, and next season will see him race at least some with the big boys.
“Yeah, he did a great job!” Hamlin said. “And, really, I knew he had a really good car.
“Obviously, he’s one of NASCAR’s next superstars and I wanted to race him clean. I wasn’t going to turn him around or anything like that, so stayed below him and got him a little bit loose.”
After the race, Byron tweeted, “Congrats @dennyhamlin. Thanks for racing me clean.”
Keselowski looked fit and trim throughout long portions of the race, although he complained about some looseness, even while leading lap-after-lap.
He seemed primed for his second consecutive Xfinity Series win. But it was not to be.
Keselowski had a pretty good seat for the finish, though, with Hamlin’s battle with Byron playing out right in front of him.
“Good race,” Keselowski said. “Denny was the class of the field there at the end. I just couldn’t get the back underneath the Discount Tire Ford. That was a bummer.
“The next-to-last restart, I thought that I had the 9 (Byron) cleared,” he said. “I don’t know if he got a big pull, or a push from behind and got up beside me and pulled a side-draft. But then Denny got behind him.
“I would have been OK if it was just (Byron). But the two of them together, I couldn’t defend it.”
By the end, Keselowski said, he either needed help from someone else or a tighter car.
“I needed somebody to make a mistake in front of me, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “I was just too loose.”
FireKeepers Casino 400
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn
Defending champion: Joey Logano