See full qualifying and Friday practice times from Darlington Raceway
Kevin Harvick made it a perfect day for Stewart-Haas Racing, after clinching pole position for Saturday night's Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway with a lap of 26.802s (183.479mph).
As well as earning his seventh pole in 474 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts - his first at Darlington and only his second in the last four years of competition - Friday's qualifying success also added to the delight of team co-owner Gene Haas who earlier in the day had been able to confirm that his application to enter a race team in the 2015 F1 world championship had been accepted by the FIA. (See separate story
"I don't know that that was all, but I don't know that you ever get a perfect lap here at Darlington," said Harvick. "This is a track that's a lot of fun to drive, but every lap is different and challenging and you could probably pick apart even your good laps and feel like you can make them better."
Harvick beat Joey Logano to pole position by just 0.063s as Team Penske once again proved themselves to be one of the best teams at mastering the new F1-style elimination round qualifying format. Logano is the only driver to have successfully advanced through to the final round in every Cup race so far since the new system was introduced by NASCAR across all three of its national series at the start of the 2014 season
"It is crazy because you are right up against the wall and if you give up a little you are mad and if you go too hard you are in the fence," Logano explained. "It is crazy when you go through one and two and you get to turn two and you never lift.
"You are just wide open and it is like, 'Holy Cow!' - it is such a cool place to qualify," he added. "That is probably the most fun you will have all weekend. It gets tougher for the race. Overall it keeps us as the only car that has gotten through every session this year and I am proud of that still. Track position is important here and starting on the front row is a good thing."
Richard Petty Motorsports locked up the second row of the grid for the race with Aric Almirola set to line up in third place and Marcos Ambrose alongside him in fourth. Almirola previously set the fastest time of the second round and indeed of the whole of qualifying, his time of 26.705s (184.145mph) setting a new track record for qualifying at Darlington.
"The track record lap I actually felt like I was going faster in the third session than the second session but the record was in the second session. It was a great lap for us," said Almirola. "We missed it just a little bit. We made one adjustment right before the third session and I don't think we went quite far enough. We were just a little too tight but that was a heck of a lap by Harvick."
"We will take that," added Ambrose. "It was a really strong effort for RPM. I was just told it was a record for RPM's starting positions for both myself and Aric. We are really thrilled with that. I thought we had a shot at the pole there for a minute, it just got a little slick. It got a little loose there for a bit and that probably cost us, but overall it is a great day for us."
The RPM pair start just ahead of Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray on row three, while Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch will occupy row four for the drop of the green flag. Seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon will start ninth alongside Denny Hamlin, while Paul Menard and Martin Truex Jr. were the final two drivers to make it into the pole shootout.
The tricky 1.366-mile 'pinched' paperclip oval - a configuration unique on the Cup schedule - caught out a lot of big names, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and last week's pole winner Tony Stewart all failing to advance from round 2. Even more disadvantaged were Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth and Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson who both narrowly failed to progress from the first found of qualifying and who will now start from 25th and 26th pace on the grid respectively.
"The car was plenty comfortable," insisted Johnson. "The first time out maybe I left a little on the table that would have transferred me into the second round. That second time out we got tight: the car has been comfortable, but we have just been lacking speed to go with it.
"I'm just disappointed we didn't get a better lap," he added. "We've been working hard to get speed in the car today and have just been a little short on that. But there is still an evening and most of tomorrow to sort things out there and we'll get this Kobalt Tools Chevrolet where it needs to be."
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will start just behind Kenseth and Johnson in 28th place, and also starting low down on the grid is Kevin Harvick's SHR team mate Danica Patrick who will line-up in 33rd place. With 44 drivers vying for a spot on the grid, only one car failed to qualify on Friday - the #35 entry driven by David Reutimann.See full qualifying and Friday practice times from Darlington Raceway