FONTANA, Calif. — Kyle Busch had the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway — until Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin took it away from him.
Hamlin circled the two-mile track in 38.626 seconds (186.403 mph) to claim his second Coors Light pole award at Fontana and the 10th of his career, and he did it by taking the opposite approach from his teammate — running the bottom of the track through Turns 1 and 2 rather than the top groove.
Busch and Mark Martin both ran 185.534 mph, with Busch getting the second starting spot for the fifth race of the season by virtue of a higher finish in last year owners’ standings.
Martin will start third, followed by series points leader Greg Biffle (185.510 mph) and Kasey Kahne, who also tied for the fourth spot, with Biffle winning the position on owner points.
Hamlin ran a spectacular lap despite ignoring the example of teammate and eighth-place qualifier Joey Logano, who ran the top of track and picked a line through the corner many drivers who followed him in the qualifying order sought to emulate.
Hamlin thought the gusty wind would have more of an effect on the high line, and the driver of the No. 11 Toyota had run the bottom of the track during his mock qualifying runs in practice.
“Everyone had a different way of doing it,” Hamlin said. “It seemed like there were some guys who were five lanes up and some who just worked their way down. We were one of the few cars that ran all the way on the bottom.
“That’s where we practiced, and I didn’t want to change that. I’d done all my qualifying runs early in the day and practiced race runs on the bottom. Really, I think I would have been less efficient running the top, even though it might have been faster. My safest route was to take the bottom, and I just took what it gave us.”
After seeing Logano take the provisional pole with his run on the top in the first two corners, Busch did the same.
“I’ve never run 1 and 2 up in the third lane like that,” Busch said. “I think Joey kind of started the trend there, and a lot of people picked up it and started running some really good times. And lo, and behold, one of the only guys that runs the bottom — Denny — beats you.”
A Toyota driver has never won a Cup race at Fontana, but with Camrys in the top three positions on the grid, the odds have improved for the Japanese car maker.
Robby Gordon, Joe Nemechek and rookie Timmy Hill failed to qualify for the 43-car field. Nemechek had not missed a Sprint Cup event since failing to qualifying at Phoenix in November 2010. Friday’s DNQ broke a string of 41 straight successful attempts.