Kyle Larson wins pole for championship race at Phoenix; Chase Elliott will start second
AVONDALE, Arizona -- Hendrick Motorsports’ championship drivers locked out the front row in pole qualifying Saturday for the NASCAR season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
Kyle Larson, who leads the series with nine victories this year, took the pole position with a 137.847 lap around the 1-mile oval, bumping teammate Chase Elliott (136.939) from the top spot. Elliott nearly flipped the script from last season when he started last and won the race and 2020 championship.
The green flag for Sunday’s 2021 season finale will wave shortly after 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC with prerace coverage beginning at 1:30 p.m. ET.
QUALIFYING RESULTS: Where everyone will start Sunday
As the second-to-last driver to make an attempt, Larson told NBC Sports reporter Dave Burns that he took the high line around the track in his No. 5 Chevrolet after watching Elliott move up a lane on the second lap.
“I thought I’d try it,” Larson said. “I was able to carry a lot of speed through 1 and 2, Really cool to get a pole and it’ll be good having pit stall 1.”
“I really didn’t think it would be second,” Elliott said. “I’m happy with what we have, but we need to be better tomorrow.”
Among the other title contenders: Denny Hamlin qualified sixth, and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. was 12th.
With the Championship 4 drivers receiving the first four selections of pit stalls (they will choose in order of their qualifying position, so Larson will have the first pick), Saturday’s qualifying session was largely perfunctory.
Elliott proved last year that it’s possible to overcome a poor starting position at Phoenix, starting from the rear because of inspection failures and winning the race and championship in the 2020 season finale.
Hamlin didn’t make any mock qualifying runs in Friday practice, and crew chief Chris Gabehart said afterward that he wasn’t sure about the team’s setup.
“I can tell you it doesn’t matter,” Gabehart said. “You’re going to pick within the first four stalls, and if you have a race car worthy of winning the race, Chase Elliott showed us a year ago that you’re going to drive from 38th to the lead in no time flat.
“This race is pretty unique in that all the other competitors on the racetrack do tend to give a lot of room. They don’t want to be a part of the story. I mean it’s still racing, they can’t help it obviously, but I definitely haven’t focused on qualifying to speak of at all.”
Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott, also said the emphasis on qualifying was greatly diminished.
“But for the record, I didn’t deliberately try to go to the back last year,” Gustafson said with a laugh. “It wasn’t intentional. I need to make sure everyone knows that. It wasn’t easy to do, and it certainly created a lot of dodgy situations. You never know what can happen if you get behind a little bit. Anything can happen. Someone can have a problem.
“All these teams are really good. The crew chiefs are really good, the drivers are really good, and the pit crews are really good. If they go to the back and don’t qualify great, it’s not going to be the end of the world.”