Byron tops 173 mph and hits fast lap to win pole at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — William Byron turned the fast lap at Pocono in the latest sign that Hendrick Motorsports may have turned the corner and can stamp itself a NASCAR championship contender.

Hendrick Motorsports was long the home of Hall of Famers and champions, from Jeff Gordon to Jimmie Johnson, and was always a threat to place a driver in the championship race. Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, and Johnson’s seven reigns as Cup Series champion at times seem like a distant memory as he’s stuck on a winless streak that stretches two years.

The organization with 12 Cup titles was locked out of the championship-deciding finale in 2018 for the second consecutive year.

Hendrick is on the brink of a breakthrough.

Byron turned a lap of 173.494 mph on Saturday to win the pole at Pocono Raceway. He won his second straight pole in the No. 24 Chevrolet, following up his first-place start last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Byron opened the season with a pole in the Daytona 500 but has yet to win a Cup race in 49 career starts.

“It just improves your ability in the race to control your race,” Byron said of the pole. “We made some good improvements overnight for sure, and that showed in qualifying. Really, I think that’s going to translate to the race.”

Byron was one of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish in the top 10 last week in the Coca-Cola 600. Chase Elliott is the only Hendrick driver with a win this season. Hendrick’s Alex Bowman was runner-up in three straight races before finishing seventh last week. The 43-year-old Johnson has two straight top 10s and his drive to pass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and set a NASCAR record with eight championships remains as strong as ever.

Elliott may reign as NASCAR’s most popular driver but he’s not ready to supplant Johnson as The Man at Hendrick.

“As long as Jimmie’s there, Jimmie’s always going to be that guy,” Elliott said. “I’ve won less races than he has championships. I think as long as he’s in the organization, he’s always going to be our leader. I respect that, as everybody else should, too.”

Joe Gibbs Racing remains the class of NASCAR with eight wins this season and Team Penske drivers have four wins. No other organization has won a Cup race this season.

Elliott has four-straight top-10 finishes at Pocono and Johnson has three wins on the 2½-mile track. Hendrick has 17 career wins at Pocono but none since Earnhardt swept the two races in 2014.

Byron hopes starting first leads to his first win in the Cup Series.

“Last year was just a dog fight to try and run well,” Byron said.

Other items of note at Pocono:

THE LINEUP

Kyle Busch joins Byron in the front row in the No. 18 Toyota. Clint Bowyer starts third, followed by Erik Jones and Brad Keselowski.

The cars for Chris Buescher and Erik Jones failed pre-qualifying inspection twice and had their car chiefs ejected.