Matt Kenseth led the way for Joe Gibbs Racing at Michigan International Speedway on Friday evening as he and Denny Hamlin locked-out the front row of the grid for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
Kenseth clinched pole with a lap of 36.458s (197.488mph) in the second and final round of qualifying, putting him 0.092s ahead of Hamlin in the final times.
"I always feel like the better your team mates are, the better you run, the harder you work and the better it makes you," said Kenseth of the JGR rout. "It lifts all of our performance and effort and all that stuff up I feel like."
CLICK: Full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying times from Michigan International Speedway
"I knew I got through one and two good, but Denny put up such a fast lap and I got into three and I was bound and determined that I was going to make it wide open," he said of his pole lap. "I had the first half of the corner, it was the second half that was starting to get exciting. I got sliding up the track and bogged down a little bit. I wasn't sure that we were going have it, but I have to say thanks to those guys [the team], they gave me a car with a lot of speed."
It's the 43-year-old's third pole of the year and his 16th pole in 567 starts, which means he now ties Dale Jarrett and Curtis Turner for 45th on the all-time series poles list. It's his first pole in 33 races at Michigan, his previous best grid place here having been second in August 2011.
Kenseth's lap was clocked at over 203mph down the backstretch, despite the introduction this weekend of a new high downforce package featuring an extended rear spoiler and other aerodynamic alterations designed to improve close racing but which also allowed drivers to stay full throttle down the straights as a result but with an overall slower full lap time.
NASCAR also scrapped its usual multi-car group qualifying sessions for this weekend, opting instead for Daytona-style single-car runs in order to avoid the risk of widespread drafting.
The remaining members of the JGR line-up were not far behind Kenseth and Hamlin. Carl Edwards took third place to make it a team 1-2-3, while Kyle Busch was sixth fastest meaning that the entire squad will line up on the first three rows when the green flag drops for the start of the race on Sunday afternoon.
"Our car is very fast and I'm really proud of all the guys at the shop," said Edwards. "We've been able to be fast with multiple packages. I didn't expect for all of us to be this stout here. It is just qualifying and I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen in the race. There's a lot of disturbed air because of the device that they have on these cars. I don't think anyone knows how they're going to race in a big group."
"Obviously the JGR cars are really fast and the guys are doing a great job," added Busch. "Our Interstate Batteries Camry was fast. In the final round there, it was just a matter of now screwing up or it could have been all top-four. I just got too tight there and didn't hit the lap perfect and we ended up sixth. We have a good car for Sunday and we'll keep working in both practices tomorrow and hopefully we can put ourselves in position to win."
JGR's domination had been consistent throughout Friday, with the four team mates picking up the top four positions in the first round of qualifying. Edwards had also been fastest in the sole practice session earlier in the day, with the rest of his team mates all finishing in the top ten even that early in proceedings.
Sandwiched in between the JGR cars in final qualifying - and therefore proven to be the best of the rest at Michigan in the early evening - were Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon and Stewart-Haas Racing's Tony Stewart in fourth and fifth place respectively.
"We've just been really working hard," said Dillon. "We're just looking forward to what's to come. We want to start finishing races; we've had speed during the race and we've had good qualifying speed, but now we've just got to go ahead and get these finishes that we need to be having. I'm just proud of the Dow team. We have another good car. I think we were the only one on stickers right there, so hopefully that shows up right here on our scuff run in our second lap."
"These guys have just done an awesome job," Stewart said, referring to the efforts of the SHR crew. "Its four weeks in a row now that we have qualified in the top five. I'm really proud of that. I'm really proud of the Mobil 1/Bass Pro team here. We just have to figure out how to finish it off for the rest of the weekend like we have."
Stewart's team mate Kevin Harvick was seventh fastest putting him on the fourth row of the grid alongside Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. will share row five with last week's race winner at Watkins Glen, Penske's Joey Logano.
"We were wide open, no brakes," recalled Harvick. "Obviously, we've got a little bit of a speed difference in qualifying trim than some of the other cars, but was happy with our Jimmy John's Chevy in race trim and we will go from there."
"The direction was great we picked up a couple of tenths," said Johnson. "I am definitely learning as I go here with this package and how to drive this thing around the racetrack. We made great gains all day long. Unfortunately, won't have the pole, but it looks like a decent starting spot."
"I thought it was pretty good," Earnhardt said of his own effort. "I had to crack the throttle just a touch in turn 3 and that is the difference I suppose. I tried to get up to speed real good. The first time we went out in the first session I didn't even get up on the track coming out of the pits. I left off of 2, I wasn't really thinking, but we ran a good lap there. We are pretty happy with it. We started off so far off today. I'm real happy that we were able to put things together and hopefully this will give us a good direction for tomorrow on our race car."
"Well, we aren't in first so we aren't satisfied with it," admitted Logano. "Qualifying here is very interesting, for sure. I had my hands full I can tell you that much. I was sawing away at it but I had a lot of fun out there in the Shell Pennzoil Ford and we will be close enough to the front there that we will get a decent starting spot and we will get a good pit stall, so the guys have that going for them and we will go to work on dialling it in some more tomorrow during the practice sessions."
The final drivers to make it through to the top 12 pole shoot-out were Hendrick's Kasey Kahne and Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer. Just missing out were Bowyer's team mate David Ragan and Logano's Penske partner Brad Keselowski, who will start from 13th and 14th respectively.
"Qualifying was good," noted Kahne. "I ran wide open, flat, never even thought about lifting coming to the green or either one of my laps there both rounds. The car felt good. A lot different than how it is going to feel around race cars though. We will find out more about that tomorrow. Then the race on Sunday is going to be interesting."
"We were way better than we were in practice," said Bowyer. "This is a confidence builder with every day that we work together. That was the first stab at this – it was a completely different set-up going into this and we were a little bit too loose to really run that lap and stay committed on the throttle. We'll be able to work with this tomorrow and get it where I need it and be fast."
"Our Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota was pretty good during qualifying," contributed Ragan. "We were just a little too loose. Man we just missed the top 12 there. I thought we had a top ten car but I don't think we had anything for the pole. It would have been nice to see what kind of lap we could have made in the second round of qualifying. I look forward to working on the Aaron's Toyota in practice tomorrow and I think we have a pretty good car for Sunday."
"It was a pretty smooth lap," said Keselowski. "I was running wide-open and there isn't a lot you can say about that. We were just holding it open and there isn't a lot of driver involved in that. The guys have done a good job of getting the car better through the day and we are better now than when practice started and hopefully we will keep getting better to be the best car in the race.”
Asked about the new high downforce rules package, Keselowski added: "We were trying to find the right balance between speed and balance with the way the car handles and we are definitely in dial-in mode trying to figure that all out."
The drivers will all have two further 55 minute practice sessions on Saturday morning to get their cars set up for the race rather than for qualifying. Tomorrow will also see the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series in action in both qualifying and their respective races, with the Xfinity race taking place at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and the Trucks sharing the billing with the Cup cars at Michigan.
Reed Sorenson won't be taking part in the rest of the Cup activities this weekend after being the sole driver not to qualify for the 43-car grid. Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola did make it into the race and will start from 30th place despite suffering from a virus that saw him miss most of the earlier practice session, with Truck regular Matt Crafton sitting in for him.
See full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying times from Michigan International Speedway
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