Joey Logano will start Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 from pole position at Richmond International Raceway, in the last race of the regular season before the ten-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship gets underway.
Logano set a pole time of 21.349s (126.470mph) early on Friday evening on the three-quarter-mile track to claim his fifth pole of the season and his 13th in 245 Cup races - but the first time he's finished qualifying on top since Kansas at the start of May.
CLICK: Full qualifying results from Richmond International Raceway.
"It was a little bit of an unknown going into qualifying and I didn't know where we would stack up," Logano admitted. "We weren't able to put down a fast lap in practice but I felt like as we kept working on it that we were a little better at the end of practice but we didn't have another set of tyres to put back on.
"That first run we were 12th or 13th and then we were second and then on top in the third round," he said. "It is nice to have a good starting spot here. If you are up front you can take care of your tyres better through the first part of the race. That should help us with the first pit stall and we will go let it rip.
"I am proud of my team. This is a tough place to qualify because the track is changing with the sun going down and a lot of tyre wear. The car changes a lot through each run. I am proud of the adjustments they made in making my car faster and allowing me to do my part and ending up with a nice starting spot again."
Logano ended the final top-12 shoot-out round just 0.019s ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth, who had been the class of the field in both of the earlier two rounds of qualifying but who wasn't quite able to sweep the session and fell just short of taking the ultimate prize.
"It's hard to be disappointed with second but I'm really disappointed with second," he said. "The second round we had a little bit to work on and in the third round a little work on too but I didn't get 1 and 2 right. I got a little too aggressive getting back to the gas and that messed up my centre and my exit and I knew I left all the time there and we weren't really set-up to run a fast second lap. That was kind of it.
"I feel bad I kind of messed that up but hopefully we'll have a fast car tomorrow night and we can keep it up front," he added.
The second row will also see a Penske/JGR line-up, with Brad Keselowski in third alongside Kyle Busch lining up alongside him in fourth place.
"Not bad," said Keselowski. "I probably made a little mistake in the second round that cost us a shot at the pole but all in all we end up third and that is not too bad. I am really happy with the speed we have in race trim. It has good speed. We just have to keep working on it. It is an ever evolving target."
"The car was pretty good," contributed Busch, who was ruing the set-up time he lost earlier in the year because of missing the first visit to Richmond due to injury. "Not being here in the spring kind of hurt our ability to know how to adjust for the rounds so we messed up just a little bit there. Overall, real pleased with everything on our M&M's Crispy/American Heritage Chocolate Camry. We'll race them from fourth – we can see it from there."
Michael Waltrip Racing's David Ragan won fifth place on the grid with Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick in sixth.
"We really worked on race trim a lot today," said Ragan. "We showed up here with one goal in mind and that's to win the race and put ourselves in position. We weren't that great in qualifying trim so I didn't know what to expect, but obviously we have a good car and we made some good adjustments on that qualifying run. That's a great qualifying spot and anytime you can start in the top ten or top five, that's a great spot."
"We were just loose from pretty much the drop of the green flag in the first run," said Harvick, the reigning Cup champion. "Just never really caught up with it as we got to the end. We made it better on exit, but never really got it all the way fixed or all the way through the corner."
Row four will see JGR's Carl Edwards line up next to SHR's Kurt Busch, with row five consisting of Hendrick Motorsport's Jimmie Johnson next to another former Cup champion Tony Stewart in the SHR #14. The final drivers through to the pole shoot-out were Ganassi's Kyle Larson and Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon.
"I'll take it," said Stewart. "I don't remember the last time I qualified in the top ten at Richmond, so I'll definitely take that. The car was a little tight in the centre and a little bit loose off, but we had three solid rounds there. So I, personally, am pretty happy with that."
"It was good," noted Dillon. "For us, that was the best qualifying effort we've had at Richmond. So, it was a good day for us. We learned a lot and I think we've got something for the race. I've never been really good here and we worked a lot today on my driving style and hopefully we can make that pay dividends tomorrow night."
Just missing out on the final round of qualifying were RCR's Ryan Newman and SHR's Danica Patrick, who will line-up on the seventh row of the grid.
The first round of qualifying suffered a red flag with a little over three minutes remaining thanks to Timmy Hill's engine blowing up. Hill, along with Josh Wise, failed to make it onto the 43-car grid for Saturday's race; a number of high profile drivers also failed to make it through to the second round of qualifying including Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer (who will start 26th), Roush Fenway Racing's Trevor Bayne (28th), Hendrick Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr. (29th), McMurray (31st) and Roush's Greg Biffle (38th).
"We were much better in practice," Bowyer pointed out. "We tried to make adjustments to correct the entry after our first lap but it just wasn't enough. We will have to make up some ground tomorrow night but we were good in race trim so we will be okay."
"I see a lot of cars are in the back of the pack, we will be able to follow them up through hopefully with long run speed," said Bayne. "As a driver you think back to one little part of the corner, a millisecond of getting of the brake sooner to roll the middle, something you could have done different. A lot of times you get out of the car after qualifying and say that is all you have and there is nothing else you could have done to pick up two or three-tenths but when it is hundredths of a second you beat yourself up over it. I think our AdvoCare Ford is good in race trim."
"Just real slow," admitted Earnhardt. "Out on the track, not comfortable. We qualified 26th here earlier this year. I don't know, man, we have been struggling all year in qualifying and it just doesn't look like it is getting much better."
"We just haven't had it all weekend," sighed McMurray. "We were 20-something in both practices and now 30-something in qualifying. I'm not real sure. We have some work to do."
Also missing out on making it through from the first round of qualifying - by just four thousandths of a second - was JGR's Denny Hamlin who will start from 25th place. Hamlin was handicapped this weekend by a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee that he suffered after playing basketball earlier in the week. Already assured of a place in the Chase, Hamlin declined the chance to sit out this weekend's race but will face surgery after the season is over.
"I think that we were pretty confident that doing the surgery or not doing the surgery, either way I would be the same inside the car," Hamlin told reporters at Richmond on Friday. "There just isn't a benefit to do it right now, especially since you don't know how you're going to react recovery-wise."
"I have been here before, I know what the recovery process is, I know what to expect," Hamlin pointed out, having previously torn his ACL in his left knee in 2010. "I'm only three days out [from the injury] and it doesn't seem quite as bad, so I think it's probably because it's on the right leg versus the left. The left obviously takes a little bit more of a beating in the car," he added, based on the fact that he uses his left leg for braking during races.
"I expect to be part of the final four at Homestead once again, same as we were last year," he said. "I'm pretty confident that the way these Chase tracks lay out, there's nothing that should keep me from being in that championship four."
Hamlin said that once his knee was healed, he'd go right back to playing basketball away from the track.
"It's what I do to relieve stress and I have fun doing it and it's the only way I'll go for a run," he explained. "There's no way I could put on running shoes and go out for a 5-mile run, but put a ball in my hand and I'll go for days. Or until I break something.
"Anytime you have adversity or something that you self-inflict on yourself, you typically always have a chip on your shoulder to make sure that you're not the weak link," he added.
Hamlin, along with the other 10 drivers who have already won a race so far in 2015, is already assured of a place in the Chase. Unless a new race winner emerges at Richmond, the remaining five play-off places will be decided on championship points standings with Jamie McMurray leading the way and only needing to start the race to be assured of a Chase place.
RCR's Ryan Newman will get a play-off place by finishing 31st or better; 32nd with at least one lap led; or 33rd with the most laps led, while four time Cup champion Jeff Gordon will be locked in if the Hendrick Motorsports #24 finishes 17th or better; 18th with at least one lap led; or 19th with the most laps led. RCR's Paul Menard needs to finish ninth or better (tenth with at least one lap led, or 11th with the most laps led) to be assured of a place.)
"I haven't paid that much attention to it," insisted Gordon, who retires from competition at the end of the season. "I am just coming in here like every other member of my team and focused on doing our job to try and win the race and get a solid night and finish. I really believe if we can execute, which has been one of our challenges this year, then I don't think [clinching a Chase place] is an issue."
Clint Bowyer, Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola and Hendrick's Kasey Kahne are also still mathematically in the running for a place but their fortunes are somewhat out of their own hands and they all need help in the form of poor finishes from winless drivers ahead of them in points - and preferably no new winner taking up a 12th place.
Anyone else can only get into the Chase with an outright win. Those facing an all-or-nothing night at Richmond this weekend are Biffle, Kyle Larson (Ganassi), Austin Dillon (RCR), AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty Racing), Casey Mears (Germain Racing), SHR's Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart, David Ragan (MWR), Sam Hornish Jr. (RPM), Roush pair Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier (HScott Motorsports). Anyone outside the top 30 is not Chase eligible even if they were to pick up an upset win this weekend.
See full Friday evening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying results from Richmond International Raceway.