CLICK: Full qualifying results from Martinsville Speedway.
Chip Ganassi Racing's Jamie McMurray successfully put the #1 car into pole position for this weekend's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway
It's McMurray's 11th pole in 435 Cup race starts and his second of the season, after he also claimed the top spot at this year's road course race at Sonoma Raceway, making this the first year in which McMurray has managed to clinch multiple pole positions in the same season.
Despite winning the Sprint All-Star exhibition event in May, McMurray is still chasing his first Cup race win of the year and is hopeful that sealing pole position might enable him to do just that at Martinsville.
"Great start to our weekend for our McDonald's Chevrolet," McMurray beamed after the end of qualifying on Friday afternoon. "The first pit stall here is big so it's key to winning the race. Good start to the weekend."
McMurray managed to finish the first round of qualifying in second place to Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth, but improvements on the car by crew chief Keith Rodden and engineer Josh Sell then enabled him to go even faster and become the only man below the 19s mark in the pole shoot-out round, with his ultimate effort clocking in at 18.954s (99.905mph).
"Keith and Josh just did a really good job adjusting on the car," he said. "It's amazing you can go quicker your second time out. For years we came here to these places and ran slower. That was a good lap!"
McMurray was particularly thrilled that his son was with him at Martinsville to share in the occasion. "It's cool that Carter is here with me. It's the first time for a father-son weekend together so we're going to get our picture taken together!"
While the pole spot went to a non-Chase contender, six of the top 12 positions went to drivers still in the running for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship title, with top seed Joey Logano only 0.057s off McMurray's time which means the #22 Penske will ride shotgun on the front row for the green flag on Sunday.
"I was not first, but we were close to it," said Logano. "Jamie laid down a hell of a lap there. A half-tenth sounds like nothing, but around Martinsville here that's quite a bit, so congratulations to them
"I thought we were decent in race trim earlier today," he added. "We only made a couple qualifying runs, so I thought overall we laid down a decent lap there. I thought we were in really good shape after the first round. We only ran two laps and most guys ran at least three. The only ones that ran two were me and Kenseth and we still got beat by the guy that ran more laps, but, overall, I thought it went well. We just came up a little short."
Having topped the first round of qualifying, Kenseth had to settle for third place in the top-12 pole shootout which will put him on the second row of the grid alongside non-Chase contender Tony Stewart in the Stewart-Haas Racing #14.
"That's a good run for us. We haven't qualified that good here in a while," said Stewart. "It's real important. More than anything it means pit stall selection and that's the biggest thing. We got a little bit of a break there hopefully, and that can be the biggest key to what happens," he added, echoing McMurray's own comments.
Row three is an all-Chase line-up consisting of JGR's Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski in the second Penske, while row four went to two drivers who were eliminated from the Chase last weekend at Talladega with Jimmie Johnson in seventh alongside Kyle Busch.
"We had a decent day," said Keselowski, who had successfully dodged suffering the same fate with a last-gasp win. "I think we'll be better in the race than we are in qualifying, that's kind of our trend here, so I'm optimistic when we can start up front."
Keselowski is the only one of the eight Chase contenders never to have won a Cup race at the track known as the 'Paperclip' because of its thin, elongated oval configuration. If he could manage to claim a win here this weekend then it couldn't come at a better time as it would immediately put him into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway where winner takes all in terms of the title.
"We've been a car and a team that's come to Martinsville, I think, five of the last six times and finished fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth," he said. "I've been right there, but have just needed a little extra step to be able to win. We came here and tested and put a lot of effort into this weekend and hopefully this will be the weekend."
If not Martinsville, then Keselowski will look instead to winning at either Texas or Phoenix before the final cut is made: "I would be concerned if we hadn't run well at any of these four tracks, but we've run well," he said. "Like I said, Martinsville we've been in contention. Texas, we've led laps and almost won several times. Phoenix, we've led laps and almost won. Homestead, we could be a little bit better at, but we're going there to test so I think that will hopefully nullify anything there, so I'm very optimistic."
Further back on the grid, Ryan Newman will start from ninth place in the #31 Richard Childress Racing Chevy alongside SHR's Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards will start from 11th place in the Roush Fenway Racing #99 Ford although he was kicking himself for an error that cost him an even better grid spot.
"I went faster on my first lap than I had on any of my first laps, so I got down into one a little bit deep, got the brakes and the tyres chattering, and got up a little bit," he explained. "I got two more laps after that, but I think that second lap would have probably been good enough for a seventh or eighth or something.
"I was having fun out there and I guess that's the name of the game. The car handles pretty well and had some speed in it, so that's better than we are normally here.
"I think we could have been a solid sixth or seventh, and I hate to give up anything, but I'm also aware that this is statistically probably better than I normally qualify here," he added. "So we feel like we've got a good race car that's got some speed in it."
With Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer taking up the final spot in the top 12, Jeff Gordon failed to make it into the pole shoot-out round by just three thousandths of a second meaning that the Hendrick Motorsports #24 will take the start of the race in 13th place alongside RCR's Paul Menard.
"That's very close, but in my opinion we didn't back up what we did in practice," he admitted. "Three-thousandths of a second adds a lot of drama.
"We lost some drive-off in the qualifying session versus what we did in practice, that was really the difference. The car was not getting off the corners the way we needed to in order to advance," he said. "We had a second shot at it and couldn't go any faster even after we made an adjustment. We missed it just a little bit and that's a little disappointing.
"But I don't mind starting 13th," he insisted. "We can start 13th and still win this race. You're just trying to get that good pit stall and that's the disappointing part right now."
Gordon is right that it's perfectly possible to recover from a 13th place start on Sunday. But starting from 33rd position at a half mile track like Martinsville is close to catastrophic, and that's just what the final Chase contender Kevin harvick faces this weekend.
"We just missed it today," he said, after a session that saw him hit the wall albeit without doing too much damage to the SHR #4 and without bringing out the caution flags. "We were way too loose. We struggled in practice and just missed it in qualifying. We have to get better tomorrow and be ready to go on Sunday."
The problem that Harvick faces is that the cramped conditions at Martinsville made passing much more difficult than at many tracks. Worse still, if he doesn't make forward progress straight away then the race leaders will start lapping the backmarkers almost immediately and Harvick could very easily find himself a lap down before even the first quarter of an hour has elapsed, which could be disastrous for his hopes of making it through this round of the Chase and progressing to the season finale.
"I've been there and it ain't no fun," said Keselowski of Harvick's predicament. "But if you have a strong car and you can stay out of the early trouble, it doesn't seem to be too big of a hurdle, other than the poor pit selection."
Harvick's comeback drive should certainly add spice to what should already be a lively race on Sunday afternoon, with the green flag set for shortly after 1.30pm local time (5.30pm GMT). Before then, the Sprint field will have two more practice sessions on Saturday in order to work on their race set-ups - something that Harvick in particular will doubtless greatly appreciate.
See full qualifying results from Martinsville Speedway.
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