FONTANA, Calif.—Matt Kenseth aced the test when it counted most, topping the speed chart in the third and decisive round of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying Friday at Auto Club Speedway.
Touring the two-mile track in 38.438 seconds (187.315 mph) Kenseth put his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400, the fifth race of the 2014 Sprint Cup season.
Kenseth edged Brad Keselowski (187.105 mph for the top starting spot, but Keselowski will start on the front row for his fourth consecutive race. Keselowski has qualified either first or second since the debut of knockout qualifying in the Cup series at Phoenix for the second race of the season.
Jimmie Johnson will start third after a lap at 186.935 mph. Kevin Harvick (186.901 mph) qualified fourth, followed by Clint Bowyer (186.461 mph) and Jeff Gordon (186.384 mph). Joey Logano, Marcos Ambrose, last week’s Bristol winner Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, rookie Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. will start in positions seven through 12 after advancing to the final round.
Because of the track’s abrasive surface, the top speeds fell off for each of the three sessions. Harvick led 24 drivers in the 25-minute first round with a lap at 187.975 mph. Jeff Gordon paced the 10-minute second round at 187.515 mph before Kenseth snagged the pole in the five-minute final.
Kenseth was fast in all three rounds, finishing fourth, second and first. His arc was decidedly different from that of Keselowski, who gained speed in all three rounds and advanced from 18th to 10th to second.
“We unloaded, and we had some really good speed, and that translated to qualifying trim,” said Kenseth, who won his first Coors Light pole award of the season, his first at Auto Club Speedway and the 12th of his career. “(Crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) did a really good job the last two weeks of making good adjustments through the rounds and making it how we needed it for the last one.
“They gave me the car, and really, all I had to do was not mess it up.”
Keselowski was the last driver to make an attempt in the final session but didn’t think the track had time to cool significantly from the start of the session. Instead, he attributed his improved speed to adjustments made by crew chief Paul Wolfe.
“We needed all the time we could get to dial our car in and make the adjustments we needed, and we barely had enough time to get it done,” Keselowski said.
Nevertheless, Keselowski understands the value of the front-row starting spot.
“It took me all three shots to get in the top 10,” Keselowski said. “Fortunately, the last one was our best… Qualifying up front is always fun and always a great start to the weekend, but there’s more to be done in the race, so we’ve got to keep that going as well.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. narrowly missed the cutoff for the final 12 and will start 15th on Sunday. Bumped from the top 24 late in the first session, Danica Patrick earned the 27th spot on the grid.
Subbing for driver Paul Menard, Matt Crafton was 30th fastest in the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Menard remained in North Carolina to spend time with his wife and newborn daughter Remi Barbara Christine Menard but will race at Fontana on Sunday, starting from the rear of the field because of the driver change.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying – Auto Club 400
Auto Club Speedway
Friday, March 21, 2014
1. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 187.315 mph.
2. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 187.105 mph.
3. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 186.935 mph.
4. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 186.901 mph.
5. (15) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 186.461 mph.
6. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 186.384 mph.
7. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 186.273 mph.
8. (9) Marcos Ambrose, Ford, 186.013 mph.
9. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford, 185.878 mph.
10. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 185.792 mph.
11. (42) Kyle Larson #, Chevrolet, 185.773 mph.
12. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 185.725 mph.
13. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 185.323 mph.
14. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 185.314 mph.
15. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 185.290 mph.
16. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 185.209 mph.
17. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 185.166 mph.
18. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 184.715 mph.
19. (55) Brian Vickers, Toyota, 184.521 mph.
20. (3) Austin Dillon #, Chevrolet, 183.960 mph.
21. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 183.955 mph.
22. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 183.861 mph.
23. (7) Michael Annett #, Chevrolet, 183.491 mph.
24. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 185.095 mph.
25. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 184.525 mph.
26. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 184.322 mph.
27. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 184.299 mph.
28. (51) Justin Allgaier #, Chevrolet, 183.983 mph.
29. (38) David Gilliland, Ford, 183.922 mph.
30. (27) Matt Crafton(i), Chevrolet, 183.641 mph.
31. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 183.580 mph.
32. (30) Parker Kligerman #, Toyota, 182.918 mph.
33. (35) David Reutimann, Ford, 182.219 mph.
34. (26) Cole Whitt #, Toyota, 181.525 mph.
35. (32) Travis Kvapil, Ford, 181.507 mph.
36. (36) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 181.365 mph.
37. (33) Brian Scott(i), Chevrolet, Owner Points
38. (98) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, Owner Points
39. (83) Ryan Truex #, Toyota, Owner Points
40. (23) Alex Bowman #, Toyota, Owner Points
41. (34) David Ragan, Ford, Owner Points
42. (66) Joe Nemechek(i), Toyota, Owner Points
43. (40) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, Owner Points