CLICK: Full qualifying results from Texas Motor Speedway
Matt Kenseth managed to clinch his second pole position of 2014 for the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday afternoon, managing to edge out fellow Chase contender Jeff Gordon for the top spot by just one thousandth of a second.
"We've been getting a hard time for not winning anything this year, so small victories I guess," he said. "It's pole night and that's the best driving car I've had at an intermediate [1.5-mile track] all year by far, hands down. These guys did a great job, good adjustments throughout this qualifying — we got a little better every round and got that last lap just by the smallest of margins."
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver posted a time of 27.095s (199.299mph) on the 1.5-mile high-banked oval to claim his first pole in 25 races at TMS and his 13th pole in 542 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
"It's crazy fast so it's been a while since they paved the track and the asphalt is very worn and abrasive," Kenseth noted. "It just amazes me every time you qualify here how fast you can run, especially when it cools off a little bit and the grip level there, especially being on three-cycle tyres. It's incredibly fast. It's amazing you can go around there with that much throttle in a Cup car for sure."
Gordon - who came second in last week' race - had to be content with second spot once again, but it still means he will line-up on the front row for Sunday's race which leaves him plenty of ground for optimism.
"It was three incredible laps and a great effort," said Gordon. "All day long we have had a fast race car, it's awesome to be able to back that up in qualifying. It's so tricky at a track like this where the tyres fall off a little bit and this is an abrasive track, but super-fast. Great conditions and you are just trying to keep up with the adjustments each time you go out.
"I thought the team did a great job," he continued. "We were fourth, third and second, so we kept getting better each round and Matt put up a great lap and I just was off by the tiniest bit. I could go back over that lap now a hundred times and do it over again to try to find that one thousandth or two thousandths of a second."
Quick as it had been, Kenseth's pole lap was still not in fact the fastest of qualifying as a whole, with the second round of qualifying featuring half a dozen quicker laps that were laid down while tyres were fresher and still retained a slight edge in terms of grip and performance.
As a result, Tony Stewart became the first man to exceed 200mph at Texas with a stunning lap of 26.985s (200.111mph), breaking the previous qualifying lap record of 198.282mph set by Kevin Harvick earlier this year in April. It is the 22nd new qualifying record to be set during the course of the 2014 season.
"Didn't look that fast!" Stewart commented over the team radio. "It is always cool to be the first guy to be able to do anything," he said later, adding: "To be the first to run 200mph average on a 1.5-mile is pretty cool."
Stewart wasn't able to replicate that lap in the final top-12 pole shoot-out round and ended up securing sixth place on the grid.
"We hit it the second round and I missed it in the third round, my fault," he continued. "We were going to be probably down to a 26.75 or 26.80 if I would have finished getting through four. I got real tight and had to lift all the way out of the gas in the first round and still ran a 27.10, so it was going to be a big monster lap in the first round, but that is not the one that pays."
Sixth place puts him on the third row alongside his Stewart-Haas Racing team mate Harvick who desperately needs a strong result this week - and ideally an outright win - to keep himself in Chase contention.
"It was just too tight," said Harvick of the car's handling. "It was a little too tight getting into the corner. [But] I think we will be good in race trim."
The second row saw two drivers who has started the Chase in contention but who have since dropped out, with Hendrick Motorsport's Jimmie Johnson set to take the green flag in third place alongside a third member of the SHR squad, Kurt Busch.
Further back, Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman will line-up in seventh place alongside Martin Truex Jr., while Kenseth's JGR team mate Kyle Busch will start from ninth place alongside Penske's Joey Logano.
"It was a good effort for our Caterpillar team," said Newman. "Surprised myself a little bit in the second run, but in the third one I lost just a little bit of time and speed down in one and two. I felt like I made up some in three and four compared to my previous run, but evidently it wasn't enough."
"It wasn't a bad run for the #22 AAA Ford, but its not what we were hoping for," admitted Logano of his own qualifying effort. "We were pretty good in the first round and I thought we would be better in the second round, but we were good enough to make it. The later it went, the faster the guys went. In the third round, we were just too tight.
"It's not bad but not great," he added. "We can see the front and we can see our competitors in the Chase. 500 miles is a long way. Plenty of time for things to happen."
Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards - another Chase contender in need of a strong finish this weekend if he's to stay in the running for the 2014 - also made the final round and ended up securing 11th place which means he lines up next to Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr., the winner of last weekend's race at Martinsville Speedway.
"I was really happy with our laps," said Edwards. "We had good balance and they changed the car well. Obviously we wanted to be better than 11th but this is a 500 mile race and we have a good starting spot and we will work on this. We ran a little race trim today and we had a good test at Homestead this week so I think we should be good for Sunday - but we just don't know."
Narrowly missing out on making it through to the final 12 was Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers. He will start from 13th, and will have Hendrick's Kasey Kahne beside him for the green flag - which could result in fireworks, as the pair had a running feud last weekend at Martinsville resulting in multiple on-track incidents.
"The track is fast, the cars are fast," said Kahne. "I could come to the green really good and actually be on the loose side, but then when I got to turn 1 I was always tight landing, so it is probably something I am doing with driving too far, doing something with my feet throwing the car off.
"Overall I think we have a great car," he noted. "It felt really good in practice race trim and qualifying. Those were good laps on parts of the track. I just couldn't get through turn 1, everywhere else I was pretty fast."
Only two of the eight remaining Chase contenders failed to make the final round. JGR's Denny Hamlin will have to start from 20th place, while Penske's Brad Keselowski has made things especially hard for himself by slumping to 26th place in qualifying, after failing to progress even from the first round.
"We want to be on the pole, that is what we are here for," said Keselowski. "We just didn't have enough to get that done. That is unfortunate but there are 25 other guys out there that worked real hard and beat us so we will continue to work hard and try to be ready for the race.
"We didn't quite have the qualifying run we were looking for but that is part of the game and there is a lot of weekend left," he continued. "Conditions are changing pretty considerably as we go out each run and I am sure they will change again come Sunday.
"I am trying to be fast when it counts," he added. "We weren't fast today when it counted but I am very optimistic we can be fast on Sunday when it does count. We are working through all those things. We came here and tested and didn't quite have the speed we wanted in qualifying trim then either but had decent race speed and hopefully that will be the case come Sunday."
Keselowski is the lowest-placed of the Chase contenders for Sunday's race. He is currently 31 points behind current championship leader Jeff Gordon, meaning that nothing less than a win either this weekend at Texas or next week at Phoenix is likely to be good enough to see him through to the line-up of the final four drivers who will battle for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in a winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami on November 16.
See full qualifying results from Texas Motor Speedway
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