CLICK: Full qualifying times for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway
Brad Keselowski will start Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 from pole position after clinching his fourth pole of the year, the Penske Racing driver's most successful year in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition to date as far as qualifying is concerned.
Keselowski set a lap of 21.324s (126.618mph) in the final round of qualifying to edge out Jeff Gordon by just under a tenth of a second at the three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway. It's Keselowski's seventh pole in 187 Cup starts and his first pole in 11 outings at Richmond - he previously started from second place in the daytime race at the circuit in April this year.
"It has been a great day so far," he beamed. "I don't know how many races I have run here at Richmond on the Cup level but this is by far the best car I have had and I feel we have a really strong shot of winning this weekend. I am very excited about that.
"I would like to get that fourth win," he said. "We have three wins and that is a great start to the season and something we can hang our hat on heading into the Chase but there are five guys all tied for first [going into the Chase] and I think we are all kind of about the same right now. It would be nice to put up another win and be kind of the lead dog so to speak.
"Still very hungry and looking forward to tomorrow night and keeping our eye on the prize in front of us," he added. "But also as the next few weeks develop and unfold a shot at another championship."
Gordon had earlier topped the first round of qualifying, but was unable to match Keselowski's improvement in the subsequent top 12 pole shoot-out. "I'm happy we are on the front row, but at the same time I see how far behind that #2 car," he said. "I feel like we have a race car that can compete with those guys. We'll just go out there and try to make it happen tomorrow night.
"These conditions are tough out there," he explained when asked about his qualifying laps. "It is hot, and it is slick out there. You are trying to adjust your car for a night race, and know that you are qualifying in the late afternoon, early evening here, so I am really proud of that.
"The team did an awesome job; I just don't feel like I did the best job," he admitted. "I never made one and two the whole session. I nailed three and four, my car is awesome down there [but] I can overdrive it; I can do a lot of things down there. Maybe some of it is the shade, I'm not sure. I kept getting real loose into one."
Gordon will start just ahead of his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Jimmie Johnson, who will line up on the second row of the grid alongside Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick for the green flag.
"I'm very pleased with the effort," said the reigning Sprint Cup champion. "When the sun was out today and if you weren't going out on stickers each time, it was really difficult to know if you were advancing your car. Evidently we did throughout the course of the day, but it didn't make the practice sessions easy for us."
"It's really good," said Harvick of his fourth place starting position, while admitting that the race itself was still a big unknown. "It doesn't drive very good, but it drives – I guess as good as anybody's. The Budweiser team has done a great job and we just have to put it all together."
Keselowski's team mate Joey Logano was happy to pick up fifth position for the start of tomorrow's race.
"I will take that. I will take a fifth place effort," he said. "We were 14th in practice so I didn't think we would be that good but we were able to get our car out there in time and lay down a good lap the first session. I over drove it the second session. I was expecting more grip with the shade and I over drove it. That is my bad. I probably lost a half a tenth there and that would have put us third.
"I think the fact that Brad went out a little sooner with the clean track and we waited too long and the sun poked out cost us a little bit there too," he added. "If we keep stacking these pennies up we will figure out how to get the pole. That is okay though, we will race from there."
Fifth puts Logano alongside Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer, who is the highest-placed man on the grid who is yet to clinch a place in the 2014 Chase play-offs for this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup championship title.
"I really do feel like we're a top-five car for sure and anytime you're a top-five car with a little bit of adjusting, some help, some luck - whatever the case you can win these races," said Bowyer, who needs the win to clinch a spot but who could also conceivably just squeeze in based on points if Greg Biffle (starting from 17th) crashes out early and the race is won by someone already locked in to the Chase.
"I'm fairly optimistic," he said. "This is a fun race track and a good race track for me and we're going to hopefully have a good night."
Nothing less than a win would be enough to get Ricky Stenhouse Jr. into the Chase. He shares row four with Kyle Larson, who is in a similar position to Bowyer when it comes to making the play-offs which would undoubtedly be a big achievement for the rookie who only stepped up to full-time Cup competition at the start of the year after replacing Juan Pablo Montoya in the Chip Ganassi Racing #42.
"I think we have a competitive car so you just put yourself in contention throughout the whole race and hopefully be there at the end," he said. "We definitely don't have the fastest car, but I think we have a top six or seven car.
"We kind of barely squeaked in to that final session," Larson admitted of his qualifying effort. "It went better than the first session. I think we gained a couple of spots. I guess I'm happy with it. We will start maybe eighth or so ... A decent starting spot hopefully we can work on our car a little bit more and try and get it better for the race."
Both SHR's Kurt Busch and Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards on row five have already clinched places for the Chase, as has Denny Hamlin who starts from 11th place in the Joe Gibbs Racing #11 just ahead of Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman, who currently is provisionally in the play-offs based on the points standings.
Danica Patrick and Paul Menard just missed out on making it through to the final round of qualifying and will line-up in 13th and 14th place on the grid; both need outright win to have any chance of a Chase berth, which is also the case for Jamie McMurray starting from 15th place.
Starting from 16th place. JGR's Matt Kenseth has yet to win a race in 2014 but is nonetheless already locked in to the Chase on points. The other confirmed Chase contenders are Kyle Busch (starting from 20th), Kasey Kahne (21st), AJ Allmendinger (23rd), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (24th) and Aric Almirola (26th). Almirola's Richard Petty Motorsports team mate Marcos Ambrose will start from 33rd position in his final chance to grab a last-minute Chase spot.
David Ragan and Ryan Truex did not make it through pre-qualifying technical inspection in time to make qualifying runs. However they make the grid based on car owner points and will start from 42nd and 43rd respectively, which leaves Clay Rogers as the only driver not to make the race.
See full qualifying times for the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway