Joey Logano will start from pole position for Sunday's STP 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway, the first time he has qualified on top in 13 races at the track known as the Paperclip.
With rain affecting the day's track activities from the start, Logano eventually laid down the best lap of the day with a time of 19.232s (98.461mph) on the 0.526-mile oval, the shortest circuit on the calendar. The Penske driver won pole by just 0.026s over Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman, who had earlier paced the sole Friday practice session.
Full qualifying times from Martinsville
“It feels great to finally get the pole here. We've been close so many times and throughout my career I feel like we've always qualified well here, but was never able to get a pole," said Logano as he celebrated claiming his 10th pole in 225 Cup appearances, most recently at this year's Daytona 500 that got the 2015 season underway.
"This is such a tough race track and it means a lot to say you've won something here even if it's a pole," Logano continued. "It's a good start for us. To get out there, obviously, starting towards the front here is a huge advantage, probably bigger than most race tracks because it allows you the first run to be able to pace yourself a little bit and make sure you have some race car at the end of this thing.
"Nothing but good things happen from starting first, so I'm excited about it," he said. "I feel like I was just able to get the most out of the car really quick and I really focused because that was a weak point of mine early in my career was qualifying, and I focused really hard at trying to make myself better at it.
"I was laughing today because usually you only get like two or three laps would be as much as we'd ever run and that last run I ran four, five, I think I ran six laps. After the fifth one I was breathing so hard it was like, 'I need to come in or I'm gonna pass out.' It's an amazing intensity level and I think that's some of it – you have to have that intensity level and pushing the car to that ragged edge."
"It was a good run for our Quicken Loans Chevrolet today," said fellow front row man Ryan Newman. "I wish we could have been just a tick quicker and gotten that pole, but nevertheless it this is the best starting spot we've had and it's obviously a great place to have a good starting spot - pit selection is important and close. I'm just proud of the guys and we'll see what we can do with it on Sunday."
Behind the lead pair, Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. continued his impressive early season run of form to qualify in third place putting him alongside Hendrick Motorsport's Jeff Gordon on the second row following the successful completion of the rain-delayed qualifying session.
"It feels good," said Truex. "With that rain and all that stuff was happening and only getting two runs in practice and going through all that and we are still third. So, all-in-all it was a lot more work that way, but another good day.
"The guys did a good job," Truex added. "The car felt good off the trailer. We got off a little bit in that second round there in qualifying and had to make some adjustments. They did just what they needed to do."
"I am pretty pleased starting fourth," insisted Gordon. "This is a tough place. You are just out there pushing as hard as you can to carry speed in the corner and the car is sliding around on you. When you have three rounds of that [in qualifying] it definitely makes things challenging. That is the best I think we have qualified here in a while. I'm pleased to be starting that far forward."
Gordon's team mate Jimmie Johnson starts from fifth place alongside Tony Stewart, making it the first time so far this season that the Stewart-Haas Racing team co-owner will start inside the top ten in what's been the three-time champion's worst-ever start to a Cup season.
"I think last week was big progress," said Stewart. "I think Phoenix was too, I just couldn't finish it off at the end. I think we made gains at Phoenix, we made bigger gains at California, we got a great start to the weekend here.
"This place is so tough," he pointed out. "Qualifying is half the battle here if you can just get a good pit spot and get a decent starting spot to where you do not have to beat the thing to death trying to get to the front, that is half the battle."
Ganassi's Kyle Larson was seventh fastest in the top 12 pole shoot-out final round of qualifying and will line up next to Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth on the fourth row, ahead of Kasey Kahne (Hendrick) and AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty Racing) rounding out the top ten.
"[Starting up front] is something new for me here at Martinsville," said Larson, who is running only his second full season at Cup level. "I was really happy with how that went. Probably more so shows how good of a Target Chevy they brought here because I'm not good here. I'm happy with how that went."
The final pair to make it all the way through qualifying were JGR's Carl Edwards and Logano's Penske team mate Brad Keselowski. Just missing out on making it through to the third and final round by 0.016s was RCR's Paul Menard, meaning he will duly start from 13th place on the grid alongside the fourth member of the Hendrick squad, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the #88, the most recent driver to reach victory lane at Martinsville.
Altogether less happy with how things went was current Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick, who has had a spectacular start to the year and who currently leads the championship standings with two wins so far in 2015, but who slumped to a disappointing 17th place on the grid this weekend.
"Qualifying has never really been my strong suit at Martinsville," the SHR driver sighed. "We're okay in race trim and our Budweiser/Jimmy John's Chevrolet will be ready to go on Sunday."
Also oddly underwhelming in this week's qualifying was Harvick's SHR team mate Kurt Busch, who will start from 26th place on the grid. "The Haas Automation Chevrolet was tight on corner exit," Busch explained. "It was like the rear end was planted too well. We made some adjustments and went back out for a second attempt, but we weren't able to improve and advance. We've got two practice sessions tomorrow to get it ready for the race on Sunday."
The race will also see the Sprint Cup début for 19-year-old Chase Elliott, the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion who next year will step up to the senior level full-time when he takes over the #24 car from Jeff Gordon when the four-time Cup champion retires from full time competition at the end of 2015.
Elliott needed to qualify on speed alone as he had no car owner points to fall back on, but did so relatively comfortably with the 27th fastest time of the first round of qualifying.
"That was goal number one, to get in," said Elliott. "It's definitely a big relief for us. We're excited. It's weird being excited about qualifying, wherever we qualified, 27th, but we're in the show, our first Sprint Cup Series race with [sponsor] NAPA on board. We're excited for Sunday!"
Elliott's task was made slightly easier by Ron Hornaday Jr. hitting the wall in the #30 Motorsports Group car during the first round, causing a red flag for the clean-up that also meant he was not able to qualify for the 43-car grid. Another red flag was triggered in the second round of qualifying by Justin Allgaier making contact with the wall, but the #51 HScott Motorsports entry hd already done enough to lock up 21t place on the grid by the time it happened.
Other than Hornaday, the only other car not making it into the race was Premium Motorsports's Brendan Gauaghan. Team Xtreme Racing's Travis Kvapil had earlier pulled out of the event citing concerns with the weekend's weather and deciding that overall it would be better for the team's finances to skip Martinsville and head direct to Texas Motor Speedway for the race that will be held the weekend after Easter.
Meanwhile Germain Racing's Casey Mears was able to qualify and made it through to the second round, but was then unable to take further part in the session after suffering a transmission failure that will see him forced to drop to the back of the grid before the green flag on Sunday afternoon despite nominally set to line up in 24th place.
"I think it was the transmission," Mears confirmed. "All the axles are in it and the driveshaft is sitting there so I think something in the transmission might have broken. But it broke every gear, so it's something major.
"We had a really fast race car," he continued. "It's unfortunate because we had a really good car. We've got speed at every track this year. Unfortunately we'll be starting in the back and this is a tough place to rebound."
Full qualifying times from Martinsville