NASCAR: Larson wins Cup pole at Phoenix

After topping the speed chart in yesterday’s practice session, Kyle Larson (No. 5 Camaro ZL1) posted a lap of 27.642 seconds, at 130.237 mph, besting Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin for the top spot on the starting grid by just 0.065 seconds, to take the pole position for tomorrow’s NASCAR Cup Series United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

Larson’s teammate William Byron will start third with a lap average speed of 129.922 mph alongside RFK Racing co-owner and driver Brad Keselowski in fourth at 129.762 mph. JGR’s Christopher Bell rounded out the top five at 129.580 mph.

The pole award is Larson’s first of the season, with his most recent quick time coming at Martinsville Speedway last October. His last Phoenix pole came in November 2021, when he piloted the No. 5 team to the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, poses for photos after winning the pole award during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series United Rentals Work United 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 11, 2023 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The pole win marks his first NASCAR Cup Series pole of 2023; his second NCS pole at Phoenix Raceway; and his 15th career pole in 299 NCS starts.

Larson delivered Chevrolet its second NASCAR Cup Series pole of 2023.

Completing the top 10 in the starting grid were Ross Chastain, Michael McDowell, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones.

In the first round of qualifying, Larson was over two-tenths of a second quicker than the next-fastest vehicle, but the gap shrunk notably in the pole round.

“Looking at SMT, I felt like my ability to roll some center-corner speed in (turns) one and two kind of gave me a little bit of an advantage,” Larson said. “There’s definitely some cars that are better than me in (turns) three and four, but we’re all so competitive over there too. I feel like there’s a lot of room behind the wheel to get a lot better in three and four. I think my car is fine. I think I just need to do some things different and get even better in three and four and then we should be really good.”

Q&A with Polesitter Larson

Larson on the importance of qualifying well at Phoenix Raceway:

“It means a lot. Qualifying is really important here. We got the pole in 2021 and that really helped us win the championship race. Joey (Logano) had an extremely fast car in the fall last year, but he got the pole as well and won. So I think that number one pit stall means a lot.

Happy to be quick this weekend; quick in practice and have it translate to qualifying.”

Talking to Brad Keselowski, he said it’s not a surprise that you’re on the pole position and you’ve been fast this weekend. Cars are really slipping and sliding in the corners. Does that play into your dirt background, or is it just that you have a fast race car this weekend?

“Honestly, I think we’re all so good at this level that once you get to this level, I don’t think it really matters what your background is. And two, I think our team brought a really good car because I can’t honestly tell the difference in aero packages. I think that just shows how they did their homework and brought a great car here. I felt like William (Byron) was really good yesterday in practice, as well, and he qualified third. I look at him as being one of the guys to beat, along with (Kevin) Harvick. I would say maybe with him (Kevin Harvick); he was always good here with the lower downforce stuff, and the last few years, he hasn’t been as dominant. He showed in practice yesterday that he was really good.

Maybe there’s something to it, but I don’t really feel any different, so I think it’s more just that my car is good.”

Just as you were progressing through qualifying there, how confident were you that you were going to be on the pole?

“Well, I didn’t expect to lay down the lap that I did on the first round. I felt like we were going to have a good shot for the top-five in Group B. All those guys ran 60’s, and I was like ‘Man, it’s tight. I’ve got to put a good lap down here’. We were able to go like three-tenths quicker or something. So then I was really confident going into the next round. But then you get talking to yourself and you’re like ‘Man, did I overuse the tires there in the first round? Am I going to have enough for the next round? I’m in Group B versus Group A and their tires are cooler’. So you’re trying to talk yourself out of it. It was obviously much closer of a gap. I lost those three-tenths that I had in the first round. You can feel that time. I got a little bit loose going into (turn) one and had to wait a little bit longer than I wanted to on the throttle. I didn’t hit the chip long down the backstretch like I did the first time. I over-slowed into (turn) three. I got a good exit, and then you’re just staring at your lap time on the dash waiting for it to pop up a good lap. I saw the 60 and I knew that we got the pole. But yeah, you’re trying to talk yourself out of it a little bit while you’re sitting pit road.”

Where do you think your advantage is? You led practice and you led both rounds in qualifying. Where do you think you’re beating everybody else?

“Looking at SMT, I felt like my ability to roll some center-corner speed in (turns) one and two kind of gave me a little bit of an advantage. There’s definitely some cars that are better than me in (turns) three and four, but we’re all so competitive over there too. I feel like there’s a lot of room behind the wheel to get a lot better in (turns) three and four. I think my car is fine.. I think I just need to do some things different and get even better in (turns) three and four and then we should be really good.”

You said you expected no difference from yesterday, so I assume it felt just like it did yesterday for the most part?

“Qualifying trim, I feel like you always have more grip. My first round especially felt very, very good. The next round, I lost grip and was kind of slipping and sliding a little bit more, but I also did in the fall. First round to second round, I slipped more.”

Your organization wasn’t part of the test here in January. Denny (Hamlin) didn’t test, but his organization did and most of the teams in the top-10, except for maybe one, had somebody here at the test. Were you concerned at all coming in that you guys not being part of the test would put you behind by a tick?

“I can’t speak for Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) and everybody, but me personally, yes. I was concerned because I had heard that the lower downforce hurt the Chevy’s more aero-dynamically than the other manufacturers. Ross (Chastain), from what everybody told me, was terrible once they went to this low downforce stuff – or something similar to this – at the test. Ross was really good here in the fall. Honestly, Ross was great everywhere last year and great here both races.

So yes, I was concerned. I didn’t expect to be top of the charts both days. But after the long run that we made in the first run of practice, I was like – OK our times look really good all throughout the 30 laps that I ran. So yeah, I think that kind of changes your opinion pretty quickly after you look at the lap-tracker. Obviously, I knew I was quickest, but one lap doesn’t really matter in practice.

I’m just happy that our team obviously did some good homework and prepared a great setup car.”

With your dirt track background and how many fans came over with you, talk about the F1 drivers coming over and racing at COTA. Is that exciting for you to see them come over and does that light your fuse for your future?

“I wouldn’t say it lights my fuse for my future, but it’s really exciting to have guys of that caliber resume come and compete in the NASCAR Cup Series. It’s great for our sport.

And two, I think it’s going to showcase our tough our sport is. I don’t know who Jenson (Button) is running for, but Kimi (Räikkönen) in a Trackhouse car. They won two road course races last year, so there’s no arguing that he’s not in great equipment. So if he does good, average or whatever, I think it shows the competition level of our sport, which I believe is the toughest in the world.

Yeah, it’s exciting to have them. Having guys like Conor Daly, Travis Pastrana, Jonathan Davenport – it’s more than just the Formula 1 drivers. I think it just showcases how diverse our sport is and how diverse this car has allowed our sport to be. It’s neat.

And yes, it’s not what they grew up doing; racing a heavy stock car. But for us, you can kind of measure yourself a little bit and you can learn a lot. We have a lot of data to look at that we can study a guy who strictly grew up open-wheel road course racing and see kind of how their driving style is different and how we can apply some of what they do to our style.”

Kyle, now that you live out here part of the time, does it give you any more connection to the track?

“I mean, maybe. Yeah, I guess.. I got to sleep in my own bed last night and tonight.

I’ve always liked coming here, even before I owned a house here. I don’t feel more connected I guess, but it’s just nice having somewhere to go. But we would typically always rent a house. Denny (Hamlin) usually rents a house and we would split the costs and stay with him. I always look forward to this race because of that. It’s kind of a vacation, in a way, and now it’s like we’re snowbirds I guess (laughs).

It’s been good. Enjoy it and the kids love it. I’ve got my family here, so it’s great.”

Starting Lineup

Pos No. Driver Team Time Speed
1 5 Kyle Larson Chevrolet 27.642 130.237
2 11 Denny Hamlin Shingrix Toyota 27.707 129.931
3 24 William Byron Valvoline Chevrolet 27.709 129.922
4 6 Brad Keselowski Castrol Edge Ford 27.743 129.762
5 20 Christopher Bell Rheem Toyota 27.782 129.580
6 1 Ross Chastain Kubota Chevrolet 27.822 129.394
7 34 Michael McDowell Love’s Travel Stops Ford 27.867 129.185
8 12 Ryan Blaney Dent Wizard Ford 27.889 129.083
9 8 Kyle Busch Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevrolet 27.918 128.949
10 43 Erik Jones Allegiant Chevrolet 27.933 128.880
11 99 Daniel Suarez Freeway Insurance Chevrolet 27.660 130.152
12 45 Tyler Reddick The Beast Unleashed Toyota 27.666 130.124
13 19 Martin Truex Jr. Bass Pro Shops Toyota 27.667 130.119
14 54 Ty Gibbs # Monster Energy Toyota 27.671 130.100
15 4 Kevin Harvick Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford 27.683 130.044
16 22 Joey Logano Shell Pennzoil Ford 27.700 129.964
17 9 Josh Berry(i) Kelley Blue Book Chevrolet 27.716 129.889
18 48 Alex Bowman Ally Best Friends Chevrolet 27.723 129.856
19 23 Bubba Wallace McDonald’s Toyota 27.750 129.730
20 2 Austin Cindric Menards/Richmond Water Heaters Ford 27.753 129.716
21 17 Chris Buescher Socios Ford 27.757 129.697
22 16 AJ Allmendinger Action Industries Chevrolet 27.762 129.674
23 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Thomas’ Chevrolet 27.766 129.655
24 14 Chase Briscoe Mahindra Tractors Ford 27.779 129.594
25 41 Ryan Preece United Rentals Ford 27.784 129.571
26 31 Justin Haley LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet 27.870 129.171
27 21 Harrison Burton DEX Imaging Ford 27.974 128.691
28 7 Corey LaJoie EnviroXstream Chevrolet 27.988 128.627
29 15 Todd Gilliland OTR Mobile Ford 28.042 128.379
30 3 Austin Dillon BetMGM March Matchups Chevrolet 28.058 128.306
31 10 Aric Almirola Go Bowling Ford 28.084 128.187
32 42 Noah Gragson # Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet 28.140 127.932
33 78 BJ McLeod Superior Logistics Services Chevrolet 28.194 127.687
34 38 Zane Smith(i) Wellcare Ford 28.324 127.101
35 77 Ty Dillon Mutoh Chevrolet 28.752 125.209
36 51 Cody Ware Biohaven/Jacob Co Ford 28.854 124.766