Kyle Larson leads championship contenders in final Phoenix practice

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Kyle Larson was the best of NASCAR's four title contenders Friday in the final practice before the championship is decided in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway.

Larson turned in the top speed of 135.293 mph among the four finalists and was second fastest overall in 10-lap average at 131.935 in the No. 5 Chevrolet. Larson also set the fastest five-lap average.

The championship showdown Sunday at the 1-mile track comes down to Hendrick Motorsports vs. Joe Gibbs Racing. Larson and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott represent Hendrick, the winningest team in NASCAR history. Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin represent JGR.

Elliott was fifth with a top lap of 135.019, Hamlin was eighth at 134.118, and Truex was 18th at 133.427. Elliott was right behind Larson for best 10-lap average at 131.776.

The starting order for the championship race will be set at Saturday's qualifying session.

Elliott's victory a year ago at Phoenix clinched NASCAR's most popular driver's first career Cup championship. Truex was the 2017 champion, while Hamlin and Larson are in search of their first Cup titles. Truex won the spring Phoenix race.

Hamlin has lost three previous championship battles. He led the Cup standings for 22 consecutive weeks but lost the regular-season championship to Larson over the final three weeks.

Larson returned from a suspension last season for using a racial slur and won a series-high nine races. He had only six career wins in his previous six full seasons.

Truex has four wins, and Elliott and Hamlin both won twice this season.

The coronavirus pandemic forced NASCAR to streamline its schedule, and most race weekends in 2020 were turned into one-day events. That continued in 2021, with only Phoenix and seven other race weekends -- mostly new tracks and the Daytona 500 -- having scheduled practice sessions.

Brad Keselowski had the fastest practice lap of the session at 135.384 mph as he enters his final race for Team Penske. Penske driver Ryan Blaney had the best 10-lap average at 132.596.