CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — If Kyle Larson hopes to repeat as Coca-Cola 600 champion, he’ll have to do so starting from the back of the field — and chase down some Toyotas along the way.
Denny Hamlin will start on the pole Sunday for NASCAR’s longest race while Larson, the defending Cup Series champion, will begin 36th after crashing in practice.
Hamlin turned a lap of 183.68 mph for his first pole of the year and the 34th of his Cup Series career. Hamlin was also on the pole for the 2013 Coca-Cola 600 but has never won at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Toyotas claimed the top four spots in qualifying.
Kurt Busch, who won the last Cup race at Kansas, will start alongside Hamlin on the front row for the sold out Coca-Cola 600 which is expected to draw approximately 100,000 fans. They will be followed on the second row by Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Christopher Bell and Kyle Busch. William Byron rounds out the top five.
“I’ve had such fast cars here,” Hamlin said. “I’ve had crazy luck over the years here and there are mistakes that I have made that have kept us from winning. Man, I just really want to get this one.”
Starting out front has taken on added significance in recent years at Charlotte Motor Speedway with four the last eight Coca-Cola 600 pole winners going on to win the race, including Larson last year.
Larson, the pre-race favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook, hit the wall 10 laps into the practice session.
“It was a little weird because I hit the rev limiter right before I got into the corner,” Larson said. “I don’t know if I bottomed out because I hit the reveler and then got sideways. … I hate that I did that.”
Larson’s crew planned to fix the existing No. 5 Chevy rather than going to a backup car.
He had the fastest time in practice prior to the wreck, turning a lap of 178.944.
“I thought my car was pretty decent before that,” Larson said.
Larson turned a win at last year’s Coca-Cola 600 into a championship run. He had won only one of 14 races in 2021 before his arrival in Charlotte, where he dominated the field by leading 327 of 400 laps. The 29-year-old Larson went on to win 10 races last year en route to capturing his first Cup Series title.