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Kyle Larson claims pole at Fontana, edging Denny Hamlin

FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Although Kyle Larson has been in second place for most of this NASCAR season, nobody could catch him in qualifying at Fontana.

Larson turned a lap in 38.493 seconds Friday in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, hitting 187.047 mph to claim the pole for Sunday’s race.

Denny Hamlin clocked in at 38.507 seconds to earn the fifth front-row start of his career at Auto Club Speedway. Brad Keselowski was third, and Martin Truex Jr. was fourth.

Larson earned the second pole of his career, after Pocono in 2014, and his first of an already strong season. Larson is the early points leader despite not winning yet this year.

Larson has finished second in three consecutive races, and he kept up his early-season surge with an impressive qualifying performance in his home state. The Sacramento-area native finished second at Fontana in 2014 in just his ninth career Cup race.

“Tire management is always really important here,” Larson said. “It seems to be more important each and every year as the track wears out some. It makes it a lot of fun. All of us driving enjoy going to tracks like here, Chicago, Charlotte, Atlanta, places like that. Fontana is also a tricky one because you have the seams to work with, so that makes it even trickier in how you position your cars over the seams. To find the right balance for that is tricky.”

Jimmie Johnson will start 37th after deciding not to participate in qualifying. The defending Fontana champion and six-time winner on his home track didn’t have enough time to prepare his backup car after crashing in practice.

Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Gray Gaulding and Matt DiBenedetto also didn’t make it out for qualifying.

While Larson would love to get his first win in California, this race also looms large for Hamlin, who has never won at Fontana — and nearly lost much more than a race.

He broke his back on the track in 2013 in a huge last-lap crash with Joey Logano, who sent him into the inside wall.

“It’s been at the top of my list, really since 2013, of tracks that you want to win at,” Hamlin said.

Hamlin was airlifted to the hospital and eventually missed four races. He returned in 2014, but a sinus infection forced him out of his car at the last minute.

He rallied to finish third at Fontana last year, but won’t be satisfied until he wins in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

“I like the racetrack,” Hamlin said. “It’s been a great one for us. We’ve come very close. It’s been tough for me physically and mentally. You kind of want to overcome and get a win on a track like this.”

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