USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James looks ahead to some of the top story lines fans should keep an eye on at the Overton’s 400 in the Poconos this Sunday.
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William Byron is cognizant of the speculation. He seems appreciative of the energy being generated on his behalf from beyond the perimeter of Hendrick Motorsports. And the occasional calls he receives from owner Rick Hendrick encourage the 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver about his future.
As the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network), Byron returns to Iowa Speedway (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC) after winning the first Xfinity race of the season there.
He knows he won’t be elevated to Cup next season as a replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet. In-house product Alex Bowman was officially awarded that promotion last week. So Byron can focus on what has enabled a stretch where he has won three times in the past five races.
But all that success keeps outside chatter a daily part of his existence, because although Kasey Kahne won the Brickyard 400 last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — breaking a 102-race winless streak — Hendrick was vague on the future of the No. 5 Chevrolet or Kahne as its pilot for 2018.
Having heard nothing about his possible relevance to that matter, Byron told USA Today Sports, he will continue to concentrate on an Iowa sweep. But if Hendrick or anyone else is asking, he said, he’s ready for the next step.
“I think I’m ready for anything,” Byron told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview. “I’ve raced against the Cup guys the last few weeks and shown that I can beat them. That’s what it takes. You have to do that to get the opportunity. But right now, I’m focused on this year.”