By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – The field is now set for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race at Phoenix Raceway, with title contender William Byron on pole for Sunday’s season finale.
The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and most recent winner on the one-mile oval in the Arizona desert jumped to the top of the board with a lap of 27.150 seconds, 132.597 mph mid-way through the final round and held off the remaining drivers to bank a crucial championship pole.
“We were right there in the mix,” Byron said of his qualifying speed in relation to his practice speed from Friday. “We definitely needed to connect our corner a little bit better and just kind of get our overall balance a little bit closer. Felt like we leaned heavily on some of the Chevy teammates, so thanks to Kyle Busch and RCR for some of the changes they made, also the 1 car.
“Feel like we have something to race with.”
Regular season champion Martin Truex, Jr. will join him on the front row, with Kevin Harvick starting third in the final start of his Cup Series career.
Kyle Larson was the next fastest of the Championship 4 drivers as he will roll off from fourth place as he looks to score his second championship in the last three years.
“We qualified better today than I thought we would,” Larson said. “I think my race car is quite a bit better than we were yesterday.
“I understand it’s going to be a tough race. I don’t know. I mean, yeah, past results help confidence, but it’s a different race every time you come back.”
The remainder of the top 10 qualifiers were Bubba Wallace, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Ross Chastain, Chris Buescher, and Tyler Reddick.
For the second week in a row, Reddick had an incident in qualifying as he got into the outside wall, leaving his team with some body work on the right-rear quarter-panel in their future to get his Star Wars branded Toyota back in shape.
Meanwhile, the other two championship contenders – Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney – will have some work to do at the start of Sunday’s race after qualifying 13th and 15th, respectively.
“I’m probably more optimistic because I’ve never won a race from the pole, so…
“Obviously the pit stall is a great advantage, and we gave it to William. Congratulations on that (smiling). Aside from that, I think the starting position is less of a factor just because it’s 312 laps,” said Bell.
“Yesterday in practice, my car showed great pace. That leaves me feeling very optimistic. Certainly the whole weekend has gone a lot better than it did 12 months ago.”
Blaney was the fastest in the lone practice session of the weekend on Friday evening and noted that qualifying has been their Achilles heel this season, but that it isn’t a cause for concern when it comes to overall speed for Sunday.
“I thought we were pretty decent – long runs, race runs,” Blaney said. “It’s going to be a lot different from where it was yesterday, just being hotter, slicker. I think that’s kind of better for our group, so we’ll see where we’re at.
“I think the change we made overnight was positive. Just didn’t quite have the speed getting going. I feel good about the race tomorrow.”
The NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race is scheduled for 3:00 pm ET and will be aired on both NBC and Peacock.