Full qualifying session results
It's safe to say that this week's NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying session was very much not the usual run-of-the mill affair. One look at the line-up for the first two rows for Saturday evening's Coke Zero 400 race will tell you that, with David Gilliland on pole alongside Reed Sorenson, and Landon Cassill and Bobby Labonte lining up immediately behind them.
For Gilliland it's his third pole in 276 Cup races and the first time that his current team Front Row Motorsports has claimed pole in its history. In fact the team has never been able to progress through from the first round of qualifying since the new elimination format was brought in at the start of 2014, but this week they put both of their cars in a position to go through after Gilliland's team mate David Ragan claimed eighth position.
However, instead of moving along to the second of the three rounds of qualifying, the session was suspended and then finally cancelled as rain arrived over Daytona International Speedway. The starting grid for this weekend's Cup race was set according to the first round results, meaning that Gilliland was confirmed on pole.
"I have never, ever prayed harder for rain!" Gilliland admitted afterwards. "It feels awesome. My first pole every in the Cup series was my first time ever here at Daytona for the 500. That was an extra special weekend but this is every bit as special.
"It is a huge shot in the arm for our team," he added. "When you don't run the best every week, morale in the shop and the guys, things like this go a long way for an organisation like ours and I am proud to be a part of it.
Gilliland won pole after finishing the first round with a best time of 45.153s (199.322mph), and qualifying had already been one of the most bizarre in Cup history even before the rain arrived. It's the first time that the new qualifying format has been used at Daytona, and the importance of the aero draft in restrictor plate racing at the 2.5-mile circuit meant drivers were circulating at widely different speeds as they played for strategy and prioritised getting into position to link up with team mates and allies who could help them out.
At one point, one pack of cars headed by Kyle Larson almost came to a full stop at the entrance to pit road as they tried to find drafting help behind a fast moving line of cars. The huge discrepancies in speeds that resulted from all this jockeying for position meant that it was something of a miracle that there wasn't a huge wreck during the 25-minute session.
"You just have to go out there and do what you need to make a fast lap and try to make it happen," said Gilliland of how he and Ragan had decided to approach qualifying. "We just decided to not have a plan. We knew what we had to do to make a fast lap, get toward the back of the pack and get a good run and position yourself right. You can't plan it. You watch it but there is no planning. You can try to get in a group and do this or that but then guys slow down because they don't want guys to get a run."
Gilliland's success - and that of Sorenson, Cassill and Labonte who all qualified ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fifth, sixth and seventh place - meant that there were a lot of big names who were caught out and will be battling their way through from the back of the grid in Saturday's race.
Penske duo Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano - who have proven themselves masters of the new qualifying format so far this season - were caught out at Daytona and will start from 26th and 28th place respectively on the grid.
"That was pretty dumb," said an unhappy Logano of how the new format had played out at the superspeedway. "You have to rely on everybody else and we have a pretty small group with just the three of us that are trying to make something happen so you try to tag along with other groups but you don't know what they are doing. Sometimes they are lifting, sometimes going. It is very difficult to figure out what is going on there.
"It is what it is," he sighed. "Unfortunately we qualified really bad. The fortunate side is we are in Daytona and it doesn't really matter a whole bunch. There is only so much you can do as a driver and a team and you are trying to figure it all out and it is frustrating. I am still trying to get my thoughts all together. Overall our Shell Pennzoil Ford Fusion is good and we will try to get it into victory lane."
Danica Patrick lines up in 29th place while Brian Vickers will start from 30th, Clint Bowyer from 34th and Chip Ganassi Racing team mates Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray pair up on row 18 in 33rd and 34th places respectively. Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin will have to make his way forward from 37th place and his team mate Kyle Busch started immediately behind him in 39th position, lining up alongside his brother Kurt.
"It's just about being lucky as to who can make it through and who gets the right run," said McMurray. "It's just so crazy that everyone pulls out and doesn't go and then stops. It is what it is. Everyone has the same conditions. It just doesn't feel like racing I think is the way to put it because half the time people are running 40mph. I don't even really know what to say because it's so messed up that I can't explain it."
However it's definitely a case of all not being lost even for those starting at the back: Hamlin also had a terrible qualifying in the last restrictor plate race at Talladega when he started from 34th position, but by the time the chequered flag came out he managed to cross the line in first place and claim the win. He'll doubtless be hoping that he can repeat that feat again this weekend.
But as for the scenes in qualifying on Friday, the last and truest word is probably best left to Earnhardt, who summed it up by saying: "I ain't ever seen anything like it. It's the funniest thing I've ever seen."
Full qualifying session results