FONTANA, Calif. — Denny Hamlin edged Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski for the top starting spot in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, but of the three top qualifiers, Hamlin will be the only driver starting at or near the front of the field.
Overcoming an early draw, Hamlin toured the two-mile track in 38.410 seconds (187.451 mph) to win the 13th Coors Light pole award of his career and his third at Fontana.
Biffle (187.217 mph) was second fastest, and Keselowski, the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and current points leader, ran third at 187.149 mph. However, both Biffle and Keselowski will start from the rear of the field after changing their Ford engines before qualifying.
As time trials ended, Biffle’s team was tearing down his motor to determine the cause of a failure that occurred early in Friday’s opening practice. Keselowski’s team changed engines after the conclusion of practice because of an issue Biffle believed was similar to his, although neither engine had been analyzed by Friday afternoon.
Though Biffle and Keselowski drive for different organizations — Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing, respectively — their power plants come from a common source, Roush Yates Racing Engines.
Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, Hamlin’s teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, qualified fourth and fifth, respectively. Joey Logano, Keselowski’s teammate, claimed the sixth starting position but will move closer to the front of the field — and to Hamlin, his nemesis from last Sunday’s race at Bristol — when Biffle and Keselowski drop to the rear.
Though conventional wisdom says that drivers will post faster laps later in the day as the track cools, Hamlin, the third driver to make a qualifying attempt, felt the quality of his No. 11 Toyota made the difference.
“Honestly, I think our car was really fast,” said Hamlin, who started from the pole at Fontana last year. “I knew, talking to a few people in my motor home… it’s cocky to say, but I said, ‘Man, I can almost guarantee a pole, if we have a late draw.’ When they told me we were third, I was like, ‘OK. Well, just never mind. Forget that.’
“I knew, after running so well here in qualifying before, you kind of get a feel for what you need to do as a driver to hit your points and be fast, and I think our car was just exceptional for a lap or so today.”
Keselowski expressed concern of the engine issues that will send him and Biffle to the back.
“I’m a little bit nervous about the engine issues the 16 (Biffle) and the 2 cars had in practice,” said Keselowski, who has finished in the top five in each of the first four Cup races this season. “Hopefully, those will subside for the race.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s kind of what it is, and we’ll have a good time, hopefully, racing to the front.”
Martin Truex Jr., defending race winner Tony Stewart, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch will start from positions seven through 10 on the grid, respectively. Danica Patrick was 40th fastest during time trials.