By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service
HOMESTEAD, Fla. _ Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron won the pole position for Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a lap of 166.389 mph in the No. 24 Chevrolet – his first pole position of the 2022 season and eighth of his career.
“It’s not like a guaranteed point gain,’’ Byron said, “The pit stall is good, I’m happy with that part of it. And just the momentum for the team. We’ve tried to get poles this year and we’ve come close, third, second – kind of all around that area. But it’s nice to kind of knock that off the list.
“That’s one of the things you want to do going into a season, win a pole. It shows where our team is and hopefully that’s a good sign.’’
Byron – the defending Homestead-Miami race winner – edged fellow NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contender Christopher Bell for the top starting position – his lap only .049-second faster than Bell’s in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Hendrick driver Chase Elliott will start third, alongside John Hunter Nemechek, who was impressive on track all morning – posting the fastest lap during practice. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship contender Nemechek is driving the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota this week for the team’s fulltime driver Bubba Wallace, who is serving a one-race suspension from NASCAR for dangerous driving last week at Las Vegas.
Kyle Larson, who was involved with Wallace in that incident, will start his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet fifth. He’ll line up alongside 23XI Racing’s Ty Gibbs, who is filling in for that team’s other fulltime driver Kurt Busch – out for the remainder of the season while recovering from concussion-like symptoms.
Tyler Reddick, driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, qualified seventh just ahead of both Roush-Fenway-Keselowski Racing Fords driven by Chris Buescher and driver/owner Brad Keselowski.
Xfinity Series championship contender A.J. Allmendinger was 10th – rounding out those that advanced to the final round of qualifying.
Five of the eight Playoff drivers did not make the second round of time trials on Saturday, including Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney and JGR’s Denny Hamlin, who will roll off 13th and 14th, respectively. Penske Racing’s Joey Logano, the only driver who has already clinched a position in the Championship 4 with a victory at Las Vegas last Sunday, will start 17th.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe and Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain will start 19thand 20th on the grid.
NO PANIC FOR BLANEY
Penske Racing driver Ryan Blaney took the blame for his poor finish in the Round of 8 Playoff opener last week at Las Vegas. Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford hit the wall late in the race and suffered enough damage that he ultimately finished 28th, seven laps down.
With the disappointing finish, Blaney dropped out of the Top-4 in the standings, however he’s only 11 points behind Hamlin, who currently holds that fourth and final cutoff position.
Blaney said he remained very optimistic about his Playoff hopes and doesn’t consider Sunday’s race to be a high-pressure “must win” situation. He earned his only Top-10 in seven Homestead starts in 2020 – finishing third and leading 70 laps. He’s had three Top-10 finishes in the Xfinity Series at the track and a runner-up showing in the 2013 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race there.
“I don’t think we are in a must-win,’’ Blaney said. “After I wrecked last week I thought I was going to be way more points out than I actually am. The stages we ran really good, so luckily we had those. You never know what can happen.
“I think you can make up those points the next two races. I would sure like to win this weekend, but I don’t think we are in a must-win situation.’’
LOGANO APPLAUDS NASCAR
With his victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last week, Penske Racing’s Logano is the first to earn an automatic bid into the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway in three weeks.
The 2018 NASCAR Cup Series champion spoke to the media before Saturday’s qualifying and shared his thoughts on the 1-race suspension NASCAR handed out to Wallace this week for aggressive driving at Las Vegas.
“I think there’s a few things that go to all that, what’s acceptable to NASCAR and what’s acceptable to you as an individual,’’ Logano said, conceding he was sometimes regarded as overly-aggressive early in his career too.
“I always say sports tests your morals and tests your character a lot of times and sometimes it’s tough to balance all that in the heat of the moment. It’s hard to imagine yourself inside a race car if you haven’t done it before.
“You sometimes make decisions that you’re not proud of later on, but you learn lessons every time. I’ve made mistakes and made dumb decisions inside race cars that I regret, but I’ve learned from every one of them and feel like I really know where my line is now – years later. But I know what my line is and what is acceptable and what is not.’’
The driver of the No. 22 Penske Racing Ford said he was glad to see the sanctioning body step in and make a definitive call on acceptable competitive behavior. And Logano expects that to be front of mind this weekend.
“There’s a line between ‘boys have it’ and ‘you’ve gone way too far,’ ‘’ Logano said. “It’s one thing if someone knocks you out of the way and you knock them back out of the way. That’s one thing. It’s different if someone pushes you up a little bit and you right-rear hook them into the wall at 180 mph … that’s a different story.
For the first time in Chastain’s career, he shows up at his “home track” Homestead-Miami Speedway as a NASCAR Cup Series race winner. And this week, he tops the points standings among the Playoff drivers still vying for a position in the Nov. 6 Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.
Chastain earned the first and second career victories of his NASCAR Cup Series career this season at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. And the driver of the No. 1 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet is the top-ranked Playoff driver without a win in this important Playoff-round. His 12 Top-5 finishes ties him with former series champion Chase Elliott for most this season.
Chastain, who is from Alva, Florida – about a two-and-a-half hour driver northwest from Homestead, concedes this will be a special weekend with so many of his friends and family members in the grandstands this weekend – watching both Chastain on Sunday and his younger brother Chad who competed in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday.
“I have less nerves than I did a couple years ago when I came here for a Truck championship with Niece Motorsports in 2019,’’ Chastain said. “That was the first time that had ever happened. That was the first time I had ever been in the (NASCAR) Playoffs, made a run and were here fighting for a championship.
“This weekend,” Chastain added, “my brother is running the truck race. Honestly, I get more nervous for that, as odd as that sounds. I’m way more fine with the Cup race and doing everything I need to do with my group. But when I don’t have control, when he’s racing, I just wish I could have control and I don’t. … I’m just up in the grandstands by myself fidgeting.
“Those two things take my mind off how serious what we’re doing with the No. 1 Chevy right now. But it feels good. It feels really good to see the smiles of my family and friends.