CLICK: Full Cup qualifying times from Phoenix International Raceway
Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin claimed pole position for Sunday's Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500, the race that will decide the final four drivers left in the Chase who will go head-to-head in next weekend's winner-take-all season finale.
"That's a big surprise," said Hamlin. "Definitely out of the blue. Didn't think we had a pole-winning car by any means," he admitted, adding that the result gave him high hopes for what he could achieve in the race. "I feel great. We've got it in our car, we've just got to get it for 312 laps now."
It's Hamlin's second career pole at Phoenix, his third pole of the season and his 20th in 325 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts. Hamlin now ties Neil Bonnett and Benny Parsons for 35th on the all-time series pole list. But he knows that he can't afford to sit back and pay it safe on Sunday.
"I think the competition level is just too close and tight to be able to think you are going to coast to an 11th-place finish," Hamlin said. "You've got to go all-out on every single lap. We have to go out there and perform on a high level or else we aren't going to make it. There are too many other cars for us to think that we are just going to ride around and take a spot."
Hamlin's lap of 25.332s (142.113mph) broke the previous track qualifying record on the one-mile oval set by Brad Keselowski earlier this year when he posted a time of 25.828s (139.384mph). Keselowski himself will start the penultimate Cup race of 2014 from second place, missing out on pole by just six thousandths of a second.
"This is really an intense qualifying format and with the sun going down this track picks up a lot of speed," explained Keselowski. "We just missed it, I guess by a couple thousandths of a second, so I'm kind of running through my mind where that was ... Right now I wanted to be on the pole. We were close, but was just a little bit off. Either way, it's a good start, we like that and we've got to make the most of it come Sunday."
However Hamlin's lap is not the new track record, as Keselowski's Penske team mate Joey Logano set the fastest lap of anyone in the first round of qualifying with a time of 25.327s (142.141mph). Unfortunately Logano's tyres weren't up for quite the same sort of encore performance in the subsequent top 12 pole shootout second round, and as a result Logano will start from the second row in fourth place.
"It's a decent place to start," said Logano. "But this is the second time we came here and set a track record but didn't start first. We're good at that this year. We're good at going fast in the first round and then it's something we're missing in the second round. We don't carry the speed over as well as others do, so we'll figure it out."
Fourth puts Logano alongside the fastest man from the earlier Friday practice session, Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick, who has won three out of the last four races held at Phoenix and who needs to pull off another visit to victory lane to ensure that he keeps himself in Chase contention all the way through to next weekend's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Having been so fast earlier in the day, Harvick admitted that he was disappointed with third place in qualifying and missing out on putting the #4 on the front row of the grid.
"I just didn't hit everything on both laps," he said. "I got up the race track a little bit the first lap in turn 1, and on the second lap I got up the track at turns 3 and 4 so I just missed it by a little bit.
"But our Budweiser Chevrolet is really good in race trim and really looking forward to the race," he added. "We have to keep tweaking on it tomorrow and know we qualified 13th here the first time and drove to the lead. We have to keep doing what we're doing, and we'll be fine."
Six of the drivers still in the running for this year's championship finished in the top seven, with Matt Kenseth lining up in fifth place alongside his JGR team mate and highest non-Chase contender Kyle Busch in sixth, who managed to push Hendrick Motorsport's Jeff Gordon down to seventh place alongside Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson.
"For qualifying, we didn't have any expectations there," insisted Gordon, who needs to overcome the controversial ending to last week's race in Texas which saw him spun out by contact from Keselowski with 2 laps to go. "We definitely expected the car to be a little better in practice today, it had such good grip in the middle when we were testing, and that's where we were lacking today.
"The balance is off but the team made some good adjustments and especially there for qualifying," he added. "That was a good improvement. We just needed another chunk there and we'd be right there. I'm pretty optimistic about tomorrow and getting it right for Sunday."
The next four places are also non-Chase drivers, with Brian Vickers (Michael Waltrip Racing), Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing), Paul Menard (Richard Childress Racing) and Casey Mears (Germain Racing) all making it through from the first round of qualifying.
Missing out on progressing to the pole shootout stage was Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards who was at least looking significantly better than his disappointing pace in practice had suggested. He missed making it into the second round by just 0.018s.
"I hate to admit it, but I'm very happy with 13th," Edwards said afterwards. "We were about a 25th place car in practice and I was nervous about this and it went well, so that's good. I'm telling you, we're within striking distance. We're better than we have qualified in the spring and now we work on race trim.
"The car was a lot closer," he added. "They [the #99 crew] basically rolled the dice and changed about six things and it worked, so that was like straight off of the trailer. I'm really proud of the guys for getting it right. Now we're gonna go work on race trim and while I know 13th is not great, but considering I thought we were gonna be about 25th I'm real happy with it."
The worst position for a Chase contender is 20th, which goes to RCR's Ryan Newman. Normally a model of consistency in the play-offs this year, it's his worst starting position since the race at Dover at the end of September; however, Newman diligently worked his way up to eighth place by the finish of that event, and a similar result this week could well put him into the winner-take-all season finale next week.
"Yeah, it is a hole," Newman admitted. "Starting 20th is not where we wanted to be starting, but it's not where you start it's where you stop," he added, looking for the bright side which included a significantly better pace than he'd displayed in the earlier practice session.
"We qualified ten spots better than we practised, so if we get ten more [in Saturday's two practice sessions] we'll be in good shape," he said. "My first qualifying run was like everyone else - you couldn't see getting into turn 1. On the second one, I never got it quite right. We were off a little bit in practice in qualifying trim. I felt like we were decent in race trim. Our first race right off the truck was pretty good for the Caterpillar Chevrolet."
Outside the Chase, Hendrick team mates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will share the eighth row of the grid for the start of this weekend's race after qualifying in 15th and 16th places respectively.
"We've been making some big swings at it to try to get the car right," said Johnson, who won last week's race at Texas Motor Speedway. "We came up for a couple of days in tested and didn't find much. We came back with a different concept and tried to work through that here today, but in qualifying trim it's not what we need. We'll go back to the drawing board, work harder and try to find some more speed."
With 44 cars aiming to make the grid for Sunday afternoon's race, there was only one failing to qualify: Clay Rogers in the #93 BK Racing car was the man left standing when the music stopped and who will be watching the rest of the weekend's Cup action from the sidelines.
See full Cup qualifying times from Phoenix International Raceway