William Byron cruises at Watkins Glen for fifth Cup Series win of season

AP photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes / Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron celebrates after winning Sunday's NASCAR race in Watkins Glen, N.Y. The first road course victory of Byron's Cup Series career was his fifth win overall this season.

William Byron had the field covered Sunday at Watkins Glen International, delivering such a dominant performance that no other driver even got to his bumper in the final third of the race.

It was unusual for the NASCAR Cup Series anywhere and even more rare for Byron at a road course. The 25-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver from Charlotte, North Carolina, won on a serpentine track for the first time in six seasons on the top circuit, but it was his series-leading fifth victory of the season overall.

If there was any doubt, it stamped him as a contender to win his first Cup Series championship.

"We've worked years and years for this," Byron said, crediting veteran open-wheel racer Max Papis with helping him. "It's a great win. I don't know what it means and all that. I don't read into that. But I think it shows that when we're at our best, we can perform like this."

Driving the No. 24 Chevrolet for powerhouse Hendrick, Byron overtook Michael McDowell — coming off a win the week before on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — in the first quarter of the 90-lap event and pretty much remained in control the rest of the way. Byron led 66 laps in all, including the final 33, on the 14-turn, 2.45-mile layout in Upstate New York's Finger Lakes region.

Denny Hamlin started in pole position in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota but wound up second, nearly three seconds back, in the penultimate date of the regular season. After this Saturday night's race at Daytona International Speedway, the 16-driver field will be set for the 10-race playoffs.

Christopher Bell was third, followed by AJ Allmendinger, Ty Gibbs and Martin Truex Jr. Allmendinger drives a Chevy for Kaulig Racing, while Bell, Gibbs and Truex are Hamlin's JGR teammates. RFK Racing's Chris Buescher, who won back-to-back races at Richmond in late July and Michigan in early August, was seventh Sunday, the best finish for a Ford driver.

Truex is first in the battle for the regular-season title, 39 points ahead of Hamlin.

"It's doable," Hamlin said. "You've got to have things go your way, but yeah. If we can talk NASCAR into those 25 points they took away earlier in the season, we'd really make it interesting."

Hamlin had 25 points taken away by the sanctioning body after he intentionally sent Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain into the wall at Phoenix Raceway in March.

Daytona, which as a superspeedway is always unpredictable, will be the last chance for more than two dozen drivers — most notably 2020 Cup Series champion and fan favorite Chase Elliott of Hendrick — to make the playoffs.

Elliott, a two-time winner at Watkins Glen who has seven road course wins overall in his Cup Series career, had hoped to lock up a postseason spot Sunday. However, qualified in the middle of the pack Saturday, then ruined his chances when he ran out of fuel with 36 laps to go. He lost a lap and all hope of winning.

Now in his eighth full season, he has never missed the Cup Series playoffs but will have to win next weekend to keep his streak intact. Bubba Wallace of 23XI Racing and Trackhouse's Daniel Suarez will be equally anxious at Daytona. They are in a tight race, along with Gibbs, for the 16th and final spot, though Wallace has the upper hand in points.

"Still stressful as hell, but that takes a little bit of the edge off for sure," Wallace said.

Former Cup Series champions Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski eased their nerves by locking up playoff spots Sunday, both securing berths because Byron was a repeat winner.

"It's great to have that off our shoulders," Keselowski said. "We're going to race really hard with nothing to lose (at Daytona). That makes us really dangerous."

McDowell's bad day on pit road cost him a chance at winning back-to-back races, and he finished last in the 36-car field.

Although he led 17 laps and won the opening stage, McDowell was penalized early in the second for driving through too many stalls while entering his pit. The pass-through penalty dropped him from second to 17th. He had another pit-road penalty in the final stage, that one for crew members going over the safety wall too early.

McDowell ended up back in the pits with 15 laps to go with an engine problem.

"The highs and lows of motorsports," the veteran driver said. "I think we had one of the fastest cars here today."