See full qualifying and practice times
Boosted by the recent strong of runs by his Stewart-Haas Racing team mates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, Saturday saw team co-owner Tony Stewart clinch his first pole position of 2014 under the new elimination round format.
Stewart's final pole time at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway was 27.628s (195.454mph) as he collected his 15th pole in 528 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts, and his second career pole at Texas. However the lap wasn't the fastest of the afternoon, as Harvick smashed the track qualifying record in the first round with a time of 27.234s (198.282mph).
For his part Stewart improved throughout qualifying, which was delayed by ten minutes to get the track dried up after a light shower half an hour before the scheduled start time. Stewart was only 16th in round 1, but then improved to be second fastest in round 2 and then going one better in the third and final round, the top 12 pole shootout.
"This thing is fast," he beamed afterwards. "It was good in the first run, and in the second run it was pretty good and we were second and we ran a little bit quicker. We didn't know what we could run this third time, but I knew what [Greg] Biffle had run.
"The good thing is Chad Johnson made a really big change there to try and make it better," he said, referring to his crew chief for the #14. "Like he said, 'I was either going to make you quick, or I was going to make you 12th.' I'm glad he made the change. He's got a lot of confidence and I really like that."
Although Biffle was an early pace setter in the session, the Roush Fenway Racing driver ended up being pushed down to fourth place where he will share the second row with Harvick, who was unable to reproduce his earlier searing pace in the final minutes.
"The car was just tight in all three runs," said Harvick. "As it progressed there, we just got tighter and just didn't make a big enough swing to get it exactly where it needed to be. But, for us, that's a big improvement on where we've been on qualifying day, so that's a good thing. And Tony capturing a pole is as good as it gets for the organisation, so that's a huge improvement from where we've been as a company for the last several weeks."
Stewart himself will be on the front row alongside Team Penske's Brad Keselowski, who was just five thousandths of a second off the pole time by the chequered flag.
"Of course we're disappointed," Keselowski admitted afterwards. "We wanted to sit on the pole, but it wasn't meant to be. Tony obviously put down a great lap there at the end, I didn't see that one coming - I thought we had it, but that's why they do it this way.
"We came up short, but we still have a lot to be proud of starting on the front row," he continued. "We want to make that count, so hopefully we can pull that off. We did a lot of practice in race runs and not a lot of work in qualifying trim, so I guess that's a good omen for starting up front as well. We'll take it and move on.
Team Penske continues to show a mastery of the new elimination format, with Joey Logano continuing his run of making the final 12 and ending up in tenth place on the grid for Sunday's Duck Commander 500. "It's really exciting and I think a lot of fun to watch," said Keselowski about the qualifying innovation. "And quite honestly, it's a lot of fun to participate in this new format of qualifying."
The other drivers making it into the final round were Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon, along with Kurt Busch who had earlier paced the Saturday practice session despite having been forced to take to his backup car by a crash near the end of Friday's session; a right rear tyre failure put the #41 into the wall and caused extensive damage to the primary car, which even briefly caught alight before track workers arrived to attend to it.
Notable absentees from the front six rows were Jimmie Johnson (who will start from 16th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (19th), Danica Patrick (24th), Matt Kenseth (26th), Kyle Busch (29th) and Kasey Kahne (32nd). In Busch's case, the idea of working his way back to the front from so far back might not be a particularly vexing prospect, after it took him just ten laps to go from last to the top ten in Saturday night's Nationwide Series race, where he eventually finished in second place to first time winner Chase Elliott.
The forecast for Sunday afternoon's race suggests that rain might once again be a complicating factor, and that it might not be until the evening before the race eventually gets underway under the floodlights.
See full qualifying and practice times