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story.lead_photo.caption William Byron drives down the front stretch during qualifying for Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Pocono Raceway, Saturday, June 1, 2019, in Long Pond, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

LONG POND, Pa. -- William Byron turned the fast lap at Pocono Raceway on Saturday in the latest sign that Hendrick Motorsports may have turned the corner and could stamp itself a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup 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 Cup Series championships at times seem like a distant memory as he's stuck on a winless streak that stretches over two years.

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

But Hendrick is on the brink of a breakthrough.

Byron turned a lap of 173.494 mph on Saturday to win the pole for today's Pocono 400. He won his second consecutive pole in the No. 24 Chevrolet, following 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 victory this season. Hendrick's Alex Bowman was runner-up in three consecutive races before finishing seventh last week. Johnson, 43, has two consecutive 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 said he's not ready to supplant Johnson as top driver 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 victories this season, and Team Penske drivers have four victories. No other organization has won a Cup race this season.

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

Gibbs driver Kyle Busch joins Byron on 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 Jones failed pre-qualifying inspection twice and had their car chiefs ejected.

Busch has vented all season about NASCAR's new race package that some drivers say makes passing hopeless for long stretches of the race.

"When you're not out front leading laps and you're back in traffic, it's hard to pass. It's a struggle," Busch said. "It's harder now than it's been in a long, long time to pass guys and get yourself to the front and pass the leader for the lead in green flag situations."

Photo by AP
William Byron

Sports on 06/02/2019

Print Headline: With Byron on today's pole, has Hendrick turned corner?

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