AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kyle Larson was the driver to beat all season in his comeback with Hendrick Motorsports. With only the NASCAR Cup Series championship race left, the three other contenders will chase Larson one more time.
Larson nipped defending champion Chase Elliott for the pole Saturday at Phoenix Raceway to make it a 1-2 front row for Hendrick Motorsports in the finale.
Hendrick and Chevrolet start with an early edge Sunday against Joe Gibbs Racing contenders Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Hamlin starts sixth in the No. 11 Toyota and Truex is 12th in the No. 19.
“Today we’re behind,” Truex said. “I don’t know that that guarantees tomorrow we’ll be behind.”
Hamlin sat stone-faced as he discussed JGR's qualifying struggles and deadpanned he was going to “rage” Saturday night to get ready for yet another championship race.
A three-time Daytona 500 winner and first-year Cup team owner, Hamlin fell short in four previous title tries.
“I’ve locked myself in a hotel room before, nights before the finals,” Hamlin said. “That doesn’t work.”
Larson went out 37th in the qualifying order and his lap of 137.847 mph was enough to knock Elliott off the top spot. Elliott was second in the No. 9 Chevy.
The 29-year-old Larson missed last season's race as he served out the end of a nearly season-long suspension for using a racial slur. The time off didn't slow down Larson. He raced all over the country in sprint cars this season and dominated in his first season driving for team owner Rick Hendrick.
“I really don’t want to think about losing and trying to be happy,” Larson said.
Larson, Hamlin and Truex all had team members ejected for Sunday's race for twice failing inspection. Larson had his pick of pit stalls and his team chose the first one.
The drivers conceded the starting spot might not matter much at Phoenix. Elliott’s car failed pre-race inspection before last season's championship race and the penalty cost him the pole when he was sent to the rear. But he raced his way through traffic in the first stage and then took control of the championship.
Larson, with a series-high nine wins, will gladly take the top spot.
“It definitely doesn't hurt for sure,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a championship-winning moment.”
Elliott is the reigning champion, NASCAR’s most popular driver and defending race winner, while 2017 champion Truex won at Phoenix this spring. They join three-time Daytona 500 winner and four-time championship loser Hamlin in chasing Larson.
Elliott said he didn't think his speed was good enough to even take second, much less hold on for the pole.
“The longer you go out there, it isn't a bad thing,” he said.
Larson actually has 10 wins, the non-points $1 million All-Star race isn’t counted in his total, and his 2,474 laps led this season broke Jeff Gordon’s 20-year record.
“We still have the major thing that we really want to accomplish tomorrow," Larson said.
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