Matt Kenseth picked up his third pole of 2011 - his best tally ever a single season - and will start the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway from the front row. That's the third time in the last five races that he's had a front row seat for the green flag.
It's Kenseth's seventh pole position in 435 career starts, and his best start at Phoenix, the previous high point having been from fourth position in April 2006.
His lap of 26.258s on the one mile oval was over a tenth of a second faster than AJ Allmendinger in second place, who continues to feature strongly in qualifying. This is AJ's fourth front-row start of the season, and he has started on the front row in three of the past four Phoenix races: he will be hoping to convert that to race success at last.
"It is really cool to have Ford with the first three cars and I am excited about tomorrow," Allmendinger said. "I think our car will be really quick. We were good in race trim and more than anything we have to see how the track plays out now." As well as Kenseth and Allmendinger, Ford is represented by Marcos Ambrose qualifying in third place alongside veteran racer Mark Martin in a Chevy.
But all eyes were on the battle for the Sprint Cup championship, which has come down to just two drivers - Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, who has a slender points lead of three coming into Phoenix. Stewart will start from eighth with Edwards on the row behind in ninth - but that arrangement could prove to be to Edwards' advantage as this hangs Stewart out on the still-unproven outside line. Edwards was predicting "a really fun race" ahead for Sunday.
His team mate Kenseth agreed with that to an extent: "The bottom is probably going to be an advantage to get started but it is still 300 miles and I think at some point in the race every car is going to be in the top groove for a little bit.
"The biggest keys to this race are going to be ... I think you start with qualifying and then after that it is pit stops and restart strategy," he continued. "The tyres don't fall off at all. They don't really drop off in speed at all. It is going to be who can figure out how to keep their car up front, who can be in the bottom on restarts and get good restarts and take advantage of the restarts when someone is in a bad position. I think that is going to be a big deal."
The unknown track conditions at Phoenix are on everyone's minds, as the track just completed repaving and reconfiguring over the summer
. The main concern is the lack of grip when cars wander off the single groove that's been "rubbered in" so far, but Kenseth said the situation was improving with every session.
“There is still basically one good groove and it has widened out [from the] center of 1 and 2 off,” Kenseth said. “You can run side-by-side there. The middle of 3 and 4 is getting wide, but I don't think you can run side-by-side all the way around at a competitive pace," he said. "Hopefully, after the Nationwide race when cars are forced to run out there with two-wide restarts ... hopefully it will come in."
“I think the groove is widening out, I've seen it during practice,” agreed Denny Hamlin following Friday's practice sessions. “It's moved up probably three feet during the course of our practice."
Instead, drivers said they were caught out today by just how much conditions seemed to change wildly from one session to another. Kenseth's pole lap of 137.101 mph failed to break the qualifying record of 137.279 mph set earlier this year, despite the new surface having more grip where rubbered in than the old worn out track that it replaced.
“It was definitely a huge surprise ... Every car seemed to get looser and looser," said Allmendinger, adding that " I was in the hauler watching the first 10 or 15 cars run and you see Jimmie go sailing off and almost get in the wall.
"It was definitely a lot different than yesterday," he added, referring to the Friday practice runs they had experienced. "At night last night I think the quick time was like a 25.50 by Carl so to be almost a second slower [in the daytime] was a huge surprise."
"It was a lot slicker than yesterday with a brand new surface and tyre I don't think anyone knew what to expect," agreed Ambrose. "It depends what the weather does. We have some rain forecast and it might clean that rubber off and we have to start again, who knows? We have to really watch the weather."
The conditions certainly resulted in a few surprises, including David Gilliland, Andy Lally and Denny Hamlin all spinning during their qualifying runs although Gilliland and Hamlin were still in a position to 'start over'. Unfortunately, Lally blew a tyre while keeping the #44 off the wall and failed to qualify for the 43-car grid, along with David Stremme and Scott Riggs.
Kyle Busch meanwhile returned to Cup racing at Phoenix after being suspended last week at Texas, but ended up qualifying way back in 34th position. He may not have been particularly motivated for the session, however, as he had to take an engine change on Friday for practice which means he will be sent to the back of the grid for the start of the Sunday event in any case.
Full qualifying positions and times