Full qualifying results from Talladega Superspeedway.
A surprise pole position for Circle Sport's Brian Scott proved to be the culmination of a highly unpredictable qualifying session for the Aaron's 499 on Saturday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway.
It was the first time that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has used the new elimination format for qualifying at a restrictor plate event, as the Daytona 500 has retained its unique format of time trials and Duel heat races, and it meant that no one was entirely sure how the session would play out. Whatever they had been expecting, it proved even more wild and wacky in reality.
With pack drafting hugely important in maximising speeds on the 2.66-mile superspeedway, teams mates and in some cases larger groups powered by the same engine manufacturer were having to time their exits from pit lane in order to have the chance to run together out on track. Jockeying for position resulted in sharply different speeds between the various groups once they were out on track, and led to some transfixing if at times downright scary moments.
Kyle Busch emerged top of the first 25-minute round in which all 47 cars ran, although he did it at the cost of scraping the wall in the process. His time of (200.574mph) was the fastest of the afternoon, and the Joe Gibbs Racing man was one of only divers to top 200mph in qualifying - Penske's Joey Logano being the second with a speed of 200.171mph, also set in the round 1. However Busch also knew that regardless of his performance in qualifying he would still be starting from the back of the grid after a forced engine change on Friday following the end of practice.
At the end of the first round, some big names had already fallen: Marcos Ambrose, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle and Martin Truex Jr. (who had topped Friday's practice times) had all failed to make the cut and will start outside the top 24 as a result, while Eric McClure, JJ Yeley, Dave Blaney and Joe Nemechek failed to qualify for the 43-car field.
Brian Scott leapt to the top of the timesheets in the second ten minute round for the fastest 24 cars, with several high-profile runners seemingly getting caught out when a late debris caution meant that did not have enough time to get back out on track and complete their final flying lap attempts before the chequered flag called time, meaning that Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth all failed to make the cut this time. Notably both Penske cars also failed to progress, making this the first time that Joey Logano hasn't made it to the final pole shootout since the new qualifying format was introduced at the start of the season - the last driver to have been able to make that claim.
"It's kind of a bummer - I would have liked to keep that streak going, but I knew this was gonna be the wild card event," said Logano afterwards. "It's not by a good car or not, it's just by strategy. We put a lot of work and effort into making it through the week to keep that streak alive today.
"We worked the plan perfectly the first session and got up there," he explained. "Then maybe we fell to the back a little too late. We had a good flying lap going and then we caught a group that was three-wide and then somebody else put it four-wide in front of us. Once you're four-wide there's nowhere you can go and that killed our run, and then at that point everyone shut down and then the caution comes out and it's over."
The final round for the remaining top 12 cars was only scheduled for five minutes, but even so no one made a move from pit lane until halfway through the the time. Tony Stewart held provisional pole as the chequered flag came out, but those cars that had already started a lap were allowed to finish - and Stewart tumbled to 12th as everyone proceeded to post their best times, with Scott emerging on top with a time of 48.293s (198.290mph) to claim his first pole position in what is just his sixth Cup appearance. His previous best start had been 12th at Daytona in February.
Scott had been given the all-important aero draft by Richard Childress Racing's Paul Menard, who ended up just under a tenth of a second back from Scott's pole-winning time meaning that the #27 will start on the front row for Sunday afternoon's race.
"Who would have thought that?" he laughed. "Everything just played out. It was a lot of luck, the situation really presented itself for us ... This is pretty special. It's special for a number of reasons, to be able to get a pole position for the little guys Joe Falk, team owner and Circle Sport racing."
Continuing the upset theme to the running order, JTG Daugherty Racing's AJ Allmendinger secured third place to put him on the second row alongside Germain Racing's Casey Mears, while Menard's team mates Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman will start together on row three. That means that all six of the cars on the front three rows are from Childress-associated teams running Chevrolet engines.
"We are just really in a fortunate position to be part of the RCR/ECR alliance," Scott admitted of the group effort. "It's the same horsepower, same group that got the pole at Daytona in single car qualifying. I think it speaks volumes for the shop and the effort that those guys are putting forward both under the hood and across the body of these Chevy SSs."
Row four will be an all-Stewart-Haas Racing affair with Danica Patrick putting in her best qualifying performance of the year to claim seventh just ahead of Kevin Harvick, and the third SHR team member Kurt Busch immediately behind them in ninth place where he shares row five with Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards. The sole Hendrick Motorsport representative in the top 12, Jeff Gordon, claimed 11th after finishing a full second faster than Tony Stewart who had simply shot his bolt too early in the final moments and paid the price accordingly.
After qualifying was finished, the times for the #5 car of Kasey Kahne and the #78 of Martin Truex Jr. were disallowed: in Kahne's case the Hendrick Motorsport Chevrolet was found underweight in post-session technical inspection, while for Truex the Furniture Row Racing Chevy failed to meet height requirements. That means that instead of starting from 17th and 38th places, both men will now start from the back row.
“Basically we had a malfunction with a ballast container," explained Kenny France, crew chief on the #5. "The cap that holds the ballast in came out. It could be mechanical or human error we are not really sure what happened. At the end of the day 25 pounds of ballast came out and we were 25 pounds light at the scales. The time was disallowed and we will have to start at the back.”
"After positing the fastest practice speed yesterday, today's result and infraction were disappointing to say the least," admitted Truex for his part. "That's the bad news. The good news is that we have a fast car for tomorrow's race, and as we have said many times, qualifying really doesn't mean that much here."
Full qualifying results from Talladega Superspeedway.