MARTINSVILLE, Va.— Last week’s race winner and last week’s absentee combined to sweep the front row for Joe Gibbs Racing in Friday’s knockout qualifying session at Martinsville Speedway.
Kyle Busch ran the fastest lap in the round that counted, edging teammate Denny Hamlin for the top starting spot in Sunday’s STP 500 at the venerable .526-mile short track.
The Coors Light Pole Award was Busch’s first of the season, his first at Martinsville and the 14th of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. The only driver to run under 19 seconds in the decisive second round (18.998 seconds), Busch posted the top speed of 99.674 mph on his second lap in the session.
Hamlin was a close second at 99.548 mph (19.022 seconds), with first-session leader Joey Logano qualifying third (99.428 mph) and eight-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson fourth (99.178 mph).
“It feels good,” said Busch, last Sunday’s winner at Auto Club Speedway. “To put the (No. 18) M&M’s car on the pole here at Martinsville is something that doesn’t happen very often.
“It certainly is a great day for us. The whole team, [crew chief] Dave Rogers and everybody, they did a great job. We unloaded with a fast car, and we tried to dial it in as best we could with race trim, and then right there at the last second [of practice], we did a qualifying run and that was about all we got.
“The guys did a good job there making some changes to it for the [first-round] qualifying session and getting us a good lap there, and especially the changes we made in-between [rounds] to continue to try to put down fast laps with the tires kind of diminishing there.”
Jeff Gordon qualified fifth, followed by Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Danica Patrick, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. Under the knockout format introduced this year, the top 12 drivers in the 30-minute first session advanced to the 10-minute pole round.
Busch took advantage of a late caution to grab the lead and win last Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif. Hamlin never started the race, after NASCAR doctors held him out because of impaired vision, the result of what turned out to be a sliver of metal in his eye.
The metal was removed, and Hamlin received clearance to race on Wednesday. He was fastest in Friday’s opening practice and second quickest when it counted.
Even before qualifying, Hamlin felt he had a race-winning car.
“I’m going to win it this weekend — I promise,” Hamlin said during a question-and-answer session with media earlier in the day.
The knockout time trials did nothing to change Hamlin’s mind.
“Even going into this weekend, I knew we were going to be really good contenders and be in the mix any way, but I felt like, after running a couple laps of practice, this is a car that’s capable of winning,” Hamlin said.
“And I think, really, this year, with tire management being more of factor than it’s ever been, that kind of lends itself to my driving style even more. For that reason, I think we’ll be tough on Sunday.”
Brad Keselowski’s streak of consecutive top-12 starts under the knockout qualifying format ended at four, after the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford failed to advance to the second round.
But Logano, Keselowski’s teammate, paced the 12 drivers who made it to the pole round with a track-record lap at 100.201 mph, eclipsing the 99.595 lap Denny Hamlin posted in qualifying for last year’s October Chase race.
Patrick and Stewart sat in the 11th and 12th positions, respectively, as a succession of drivers, including Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, tried in vain to knock them out of the top 12.