William Byron will race for Cup Series title from pole at Phoenix

AP file photo by Matt Kelley / Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron won the pole position in Saturday qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series finale at Phoenix Raceway.
AP file photo by Matt Kelley / Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron won the pole position in Saturday qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series finale at Phoenix Raceway.

AVONDALE, Ariz. — William Byron will start in pole position at Phoenix Raceway for NASCAR's season finale Sunday, when he'll be 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 in qualifying Saturday to earn the top starting spot. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won at Phoenix Raceway in early March during the regular season, and completing a season sweep at the one-mile track would give him NASCAR's biggest prize in his first appearance as one of the final four championship contenders.

"I feel like we have something to race with," said Byron, who had Gordon watching from pit road as he qualified.

Gordon won four championships driving the No. 24 during a career that led to a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"It's great to have Jeff here and his support," Byron said, "but I'm not thinking about (winning in the 24) when I'm driving."

Kyle Larson qualified fourth in another Hendrick Chevy, Christopher Bell will start 13th in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Ryan Blaney will start 15th in a Ford for Team Penske. The highest-finishing driver among those three and Byron 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 race track and gives a lot of space, so I think they'll find their way to the front pretty quickly."

Blaney, the winner of two of the past five playoff races who has back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix, is trying to give car owner Roger Penske back-to-back titles after teammate Joey Logano won last year.

"We have our work cut out for us," Blaney said.

Bell wasn't at all bummed about his qualifying performance because he knows his Toyota has speed — and anyway, none of his six career Cup Series wins came from starting on 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 JGR's Martin Truex Jr., the regular-series champion who was eliminated from title contention last week, for the pole. Truex went 132.509 in his Toyota on Saturday.

Kevin Harvick will start the final Cup Series race of his career third in a Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Harvick, the first driver to win the championship when this elimination format began in 2014, is retiring.

Bubba Wallace will start fifth in a Toyota for 23XI Racing and will be followed by his team's co-owner, Denny Hamlin, who drives for JGR and was eliminated from the playoff field last week as it was cut in half from eight drivers.

Of the final four, Larson is the only former champion of the group. He took the title 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 careers.

The quartet are the youngest final four in this format, with an average age of 28 and Larson the oldest in this group at 31. Byron, at 25, is the youngest and is trying to become the first North Carolina-born driver to win the Cup Series title since Dale Jarrett in 1999.

It's a big deal for boss Rick Hendrick, who made Charlotte his home base for the organization with more Cup Series wins than any other in NASCAR history.

Byron, who earlier this season gave Hendrick its 300th victory, is a former Liberty University student who taught himself how to race cars on a simulator. Hendrick believes that should be 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."

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