AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — William Byron will start from the pole at Phoenix Raceway, trying to win his first Cup Series championship and give the famed No. 24 Chevrolet its first title since Jeff Gordon in 2001.
Byron turned a lap at 132.597 mph Saturday in qualifying to earn the top starting spot. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won the Phoenix race in the spring and a sweep Sunday would give him the Cup in his first appearance in NASCAR's final four.
“I feel like we have something to race with,” said Byron, who had Gordon watching his qualifying effort from pit road. Gordon won four championships driving the No. 24.
“It's great to have Jeff here and his support,” said Byron, “but I'm not thinking about (winning in the 24) when I'm driving.”
Kyle Larson qualified fourth in another Chevy from Hendrick, while Christopher Bell will start 13th in a Toyota from Joe Gibbs Racing and Ryan Blaney will start 15th in a Ford from Team Penske. The highest-finishing driver among the final four will be crowned champion.
“I am not counting out Blaney or Bell at all,” Larson said. “It's a long race, so they will overcome wherever they start from and I'm sure they will drive through the field. It's the final four and most everybody shows respect on the racetrack and gives a lot of space, so I think they'll find their way to the front pretty quickly.”
Blaney, winner of two of the last five playoff races who has back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix,
“We have our work cut out for us,” said Blaney, who is trying to give Roger Penske back-to-back titles after teammate Joey Logano won last year.
Bell wasn't at all bummed about his qualifying effort because he knows his Toyota has speed, and, he's never before won a Cup race from the pole.
“I'm probably more optimistic,” Bell said. “I think the starting position is less of a factor because the race is 312 laps and in practice my car showed great pace and that leaves me feeling very optimistic.”
Byron edged Martin Truex Jr., the regular-series champion who was eliminated from title contention last week, for the pole. Truex in his Toyota went 132.509.
Kevin Harvick will start the final Cup Series race of his career from third in a Ford from Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick, the first driver to win the championship when this elimination format began in 2014, is retiring after the race.
Bubba Wallace will start fifth in a Toyota and will be followed by his team co-owner, Denny Hamlin, who was eliminated from the playoff field last week.
Of the final four, Larson is the only former champion of the group. He won in 2021 by winning at Phoenix. Bell is back in the final four for a second consecutive year, while Blaney and Byron are in the finale for the first time in their career.
The quartet makes up the youngest final four in this format with an average age of 28 and Larson, at 31 years old, the elder statesman of the group.
Byron, at 25, is the youngest driver in the finale and is trying to become the first North Carolina-born driver to win the championship since Dale Jarrett in 1999. It's a big deal for boss Rick Hendrick, who made Charlotte his homebase for NASCAR's winningest organization.
Byron, who earlier this season gave Hendrick its 300th victory, is a one-time Liberty University student who taught himself how to race cars on a simulator. Hendrick believes his story is an inspiration to young racers across the country.
“I think to have a guy like William that grew up in Charlotte, is a native of the Charlotte market where all the teams are based, I think it would be a great message for him to win the championship,” Hendrick said. "You take a kid that didn’t grow up in the sport, that had no connections in the sport, that was able to go to college and do all the things he has done, learning how to race on a computer, I think that is kind of like when Jeff Gordon came on the scene and opened the door for a lot of open-wheel guys.
“I think what this can do for a lot of kids that are from anywhere in the country, in the world, that racing on a computer, there’s opportunity if you get in the right spot.”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing