Team Penske's Joey Logano will start this weekend's Toyota Owners 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race from pole position under the floodlights on Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.
Logano claimed his 11th pole in 228 starts with a third round lap of 21.248s (127.071mph) giving him his first pole win at Richmond. It's the 24-year-old's third pole of the year which means that just nine races into the 36-race season he's already clinched more poles so far in 2015 than any previous season since he made his Cup début in 2008.
"I think our qualifying effort this year has picked up," Logano agreed. "Not that our qualifying effort was bad last year but we didn't get many poles and this year we have had a good gain."
CLICK: Full qualifying results from Richmond International Raceway.
Logano had only been tenth fastest in both of the first two rounds of qualifying before pulling something extra out of the bag in the top 12 pole shoot-out to go to the top of the timing screens just before the chequered flag came out.
"I thought we had a shot at the pole all along but after the first run it wasn't very good and I started second guessing," Logano admitted. "We made some adjustments and didn't make much ground on it the second round. Then we swung for the fence. When you are sitting 11th on the board you only have one spot to lose so we went for it and she turned and off she went.
"That isn't normal for us. Normally we are really fast in the first run and it is hard for us to stay that fast all the way through," he pointed out. "It was surprising to say the least. That is the most surprising pole we've had I think. Our first run was not stellar by any means.
"It is funny though because the car doesn't feel good because you have eight or nine laps on your tyres and it doesn't feel good any more but nobody's car feels good with that many laps on the tyres here. It seems the third round here you have to change the feel of qualifying here a little bit."
But as good as qualifying had turned out for him, Logano admitted that he and the team had some work ahead of them to make the #22 a real contender in race trim for tomorrow's race.
"I feel like we are pretty equal everywhere we go," he insisted. "Right now we are a fourth or fifth place car about everywhere we go. I don't feel like we are at a disadvantage any place, we just need to find a little more and if we keep working hard we will find it.
"I feel like we need a little more speed in every race," he continued. "A lot of times we get our car driving good but just are not quite fast enough. Everything has to play out right or with race strategy or to do something different to win the race. We aren't quite the stand-out car yet and that is what we want to work towards.
"We have a few weeks to get it straight before the Chase and we are moving in the right direction," he summarised. "We understand where we can be better and that is half the battle, understanding where you need to be better, then you start working on it and that takes time."
Qualifying 0.046s behind Logano, Denny Hamlin was back in action this weekend and will start the Cup race from second position after earlier sweeping all the Xfinity Series practice and qualifying sessions at Richmond on Friday. The 34-year-old Virginian was showing no lasting ill effects from the neck and back spasms that forced him to drop out of last weekend's rain-hit race at Bristol Motor Speedway which saw Joe Gibbs Racing substituting him at very short notice with Erik Jones during a red flag stoppage for the weather.
"Obviously, getting out of the car on Sunday was a very tough decision, and Erik did an admirable job under difficult circumstances," Hamlin said in a mid-week press release.
"After treatment this week, I feel close to 100 per cent, and I'm confident that I'll be good to go this weekend in Richmond," he added. "It's a great track for our team, and one that means a lot to me personally. Hopefully, we can go out there and compete for the win on Saturday night."
Behind Logano and Hamlin on the front row, Stewart-Haas Racing's Kurt Busch and JTG Daugherty Racing's AJ Allmendinger will start from third and fourth respectively.
"I think we surprised ourselves a little bit, which is a nice gift," said Busch. The car was on the tight side all three runs. Heck I ran an extra lap which was a fourth lap and that was our 12th timed lap in qualifying here at Richmond. It got us all the way to third. So, a nice pleasant surprise."
"It was a solid day," contributed Allmendinger. "We brought a brand new race car this weekend and just all day today the car has had good speed. I felt good in it. I wasn't sure; we didn't make a qualifying run late in practice qualifying in the second practice there [and] I wasn't sure how much time the track was going to pick up. The first run that I made I didn't get enough out of the car, but each run I felt like I got a little bit better and better. To be top five is good. I'm really looking forward to tomorrow night's race just in the fact of how the car has felt all day."
After having paced the first round of qualifying, Busch's SHR team mate Kevin Harvick had to settle for fifth place on the grid alongside Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr.
"Honestly, we really weren't expecting to qualify that well," said the reigning Sprint Car champion, who was a guest or President Obama at the White House last week. "Just happy with the adjustments that they made and the things that they did to the car to get us up in the front of the pack like that."
"It was okay," said Truex of his own qualifying performance. "We were looking for more obviously, hoping for pole. I thought we had a shot at it today. Just off just a little bit on speed."
Meanwhile Logano's Penske team mate Brad Keselowski will start the race from seventh, putting him alongside Hamlin's JGR colleague Matt Kenseth who won last week's race at Bristol to break a 51-race winless streak.
"I would have liked the pole but I am definitely happy for Joey to see him get it," said Keselowski. "It is nice for Team Penske and great for Ford. If you can't get a pole you want it to be your team mate so I am happy that he was able to get it done."
Chip Ganassi's Jamie McMurray will start in tenth alongside the third JGR entry driven once again by David Ragan who continues to deputise in the #18 for the injured Kyle Busch who continued to be sidelined after breaking his leg and foot at Daytona on the first weekend of the new Sprint Cup season in February.
Busch still doesn't know when he'll be fit to return to competition and it could be June or July before he's back behind the wheel of the #18. While Ragan has done a good job in his stead, it's thought that JGR are lining up teenager Erik Jones for some race starts in the car after he did a solid job standing in for Hamlin last week. Although Jones is technically still a Camping World Series regular, he's also made seven starts in the Xfinity Series in which he claimed his first win two weeks ago at Texas. Ragan meanwhile may be picked up by Michael Waltrip Racing as a stand-in for Brian Vickers who is currently sidelined with blood clotting issues. Vickers is currently being deputised by Brett Moffitt and next week team co-owner Michael Waltrip himself will take over the #55 at Talladega Superspeedway.
On the face of it, Kyle Busch has no chance of making this year's Chase play-offs for the championship title as he would need to win a race and finish in the top 30 in the points as well as receive a waiver on the requirement that he compete in all 26 races of the season before the Chase cut-off in September. However NASCAR chairman indicated on Friday that he wanted Busch to have a shot of making the Chase on his return if it was at all possible.
"Depends on when he comes back of course, but it'll be more likely than not that we're going to try to figure out how to accommodate him, which is the beauty of our play-off system," France told the Associated Press
, saying that NASCAR hd to accept a share of the blame for the lack of SAFER barriers at the part of Daytona International Speedway where Busch crashed in an Xfinity race. "What happened to him was on us ... We'll balance a lot of things at that point when we have to make a decision, but we're inclined to want to figure that out for sure."
Moffitt qualified in 14th position on Friday just behind SHR team co-owner Tony Stewart who narrowly missed making it through to the final round by a mere 0.045s. That left the last two spots in the pole shoot-out round going instead to Hendrick Motorsport's Jeff Gordon and Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson.
Gordon is the track record holder at Richmond with a lap of 130.599mph back in 2013, and while 11th place on this grid for this outing isn't up there with his previous six poles it was still a rare bright spot for the HMS squad in an otherwise dismal session.
Gordon's three full-time team mates all failed to make it through from the first round: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start from 26th and Jimmie Johnson from 26th while Kasey Kahne - who earlier topped the second of the two Friday practice sessions - will take the green flag down in 40th place.
"Our race stuff seemed great and we didn't do very well in qualifying," conceded Earnhardt. "I don't know. The car just didn't have speed. Balance-wise, I can't say there's a lot of problems, but we certainly don't have in there what we needed to be able to get in there and compete."
"I'm really puzzled," admitted a concerned Johnson. "We had such a great practice session, in race and qualifying trim; so I'm just scratching my head, big-time, right now. We'll try to figure out what happened and then prepare for the race."
"To me, it was definitely something with the tyres because we didn't change anything," offered Kahne. "I've been bouncing on the splitter in practice and right there I never even felt it, so there are obviously some differences in the tyres or something.
"Everything is the same but I had no turn there in qualifying," he added. "In practice, I was actually on the loose-side with really good turn. So, hopefully we'll put on a good set of tyres for the race and be able to drive towards the front. I feel like our Great Clips Chevy was actually pretty good in practice race and qualifying so we'll see how tomorrow night goes."
Having slightly better luck was Chase Elliott, driving the #25 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet with Hendrick support as he continues his preparations for taking over the #24 from Jeff Gordon when the four-time Cup champion stands down from full-time competition at the end of this season.
"I'm just happy that we made it into the show for now," said Elliott, who made it through to round 2 and ended up with 16th place on the grid for the race. "You make it that far and you get greedy and you want to make it into that top 12.
"I felt like it was a really strong qualifying effort for us and my second race," he continued. "I'm excited to be in the show and hope that we can make the right adjustments overnight. I feel like our car, in race trim, was okay today. We were better there than we were in qualifying so hopefully we can improve upon where we start and try to move forward."
While the teams had two full 85-minute practice sessions on Friday, there will be no more track time available to them between now and the start of the 400-lap, 300-mile race which is due to get underway shortly after 7pm on Saturday. Much like last weekend, the weather forecasts suggest that rain could be a factor in running the race. Current predictions show persistent rain moving in during mid-afternoon and not abating until late in the evening, in which case the race might be pushed over to Sunday afternoon when the outlook is dryer and brighter.
Either way, Jeb Burton and Brendan Gaughan will once again not be part of the proceedings whenever the race does take the green flag to get under way. The two drivers were the two non-qualifiers who missed out on making it onto the 43-car starting grid for the event.
See full qualifying results from Richmond International Raceway.
Get the latest NASCAR news straight to your Twitter feed! CLICK HERE to follow Crash.net's new dedicated NASCAR Twitter feed