The rookie drove like a veteran in Saturday's Irish Hills 250 at Michigan International Speedway, but in the end, the veteran took the rookie to school.
Side-drafting off the final corner, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series star Denny Hamlin pulled ahead of Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender William Byron and won a drag race to the finish line to win his first NASCAR XFINITY Series race of the season in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
"We were battling really hard, and Denny just schooled me there at the end," said Byron, who held the lead in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet after a restart with two laps left and crossed the finish line .012 seconds behind the race winner. "I thought I could side-draft him back to the line, but I needed a few more feet."
The margin was the closest XFINITY Series finish at Michigan since the advent of electronic timing and scoring more than two decades ago and tied for the sixth closest overall with the 2010 event at the Montreal road course.
For Hamlin, the win was the first in the series in his fourth start since taking the checkered flag at Charlotte in May 2016. Hamlin picked up his second victory in the series at Michigan and the 16th of his career.
Hamlin pushed Byron to the lead past Brad Keselowski after a restart on Lap 117, but Byron began to pull away until a caution for Matt Tifft's spin through the infield grass on Lap 120 brought out the seventh and final caution of the afternoon.
An alumnus of the NASCAR Next program, Byron again pulled ahead after the restart on Lap 124, with Hamlin in close pursuit. They battled for two laps before Hamlin used his experience to get Byron's No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet loose through the final two corners.
"He did a great job, and really I knew he had a really good car," Hamlin said of his 19-year-old rival. "That last long run that we had (before the sixth caution for debris on Lap 112), he was about to pass me, so he's done a great job. Obviously, he's one of NASCAR's next future superstars, and I wanted to race him clean.
"I wasn't going to turn him around or anything like that, so I stayed low below him and got him a little bit loose through (Turns) 1 and 2 that allowed me to get position and then into Turn 3 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, so proud of this team. Great that we got a win."
Elliott Sadler, who won the second 30-lap stage on Saturday, finished third and took over the series lead by 21-points over Justin Allgaier, who lost track position making extra pit stops to deal with hood pins that came loose during the race. Allgaier finished 16th.
Keselowski came home fourth, and polesitter Kyle Busch was fifth, a substantial accomplishment considering that contact from Keselowski's Ford-as Busch was jumping between lanes-sent Busch's No. 18 Toyota spinning off the outside wall before the cars reached the first corner of the first lap.
Despite his age and rookie status, Byron, who remains third in the series standings, has been mentioned as a possible replacement in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the season.
But that was far from Byron's mind after the close call on Saturday.
"I just want to keep running well for JRM, and try to win races, and try to compete for a championship," said Byron. "I think to have the three of us (Byron and teammates Sadler and Allgaier) in the top three in points is really incredible. I think it shows the consistency of our team's execution. I've learned a lot from Elliott and Justin and (JR Motorsports teammate) Michael Annett as well. I think we'll just keep building on that (and) hopefully compete for a championship."
-- NASCAR Wire Service --