Carl Edwards swept the day on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver first taking charge of the day's sole NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice session and then successfully converting it to pole position for this weekend's Sylvania 300 in the afternoon qualifying session.
CLICK: Full qualifying results from New hampshire Motor Speedway.
"The car was super-fast in practice," said Edwards. "We got a great start to the Chase and we've just keeping that rolling. We knew qualifying here would be important, so we worked on that a lot today."
Even so, Edwards came perilously close to missing the cut at the end of the second round.
"One little mistake here or there can cost you a lot. I really had to step it up. I almost didn't make the third round and had to actually kind of get myself going there that last round like, 'Man, you've got to do this and it's a tough place to decide where to be aggressive, but our car was easy to drive and that's what made it – put us up front."
Edwards duly went on to capture his third pole of 2015 - and his 16th pole in 401 series starts - with a lap of 27.604s (137.980mph) at the 1.058-mile (1.703 km) oval speedway located in Loudon, New Hampshire. He will share the front row of the grid for Sunday's race with Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick. Harvick missed out on the top spot by just 0.027s.
"I feel like I left it down in 1 and 2 down there and just probably not aggressive," said Harvick. "It's a fine line of being really aggressive and going for it and not getting enough. So, the lesser of two evils is usually not getting enough and I just didn't get enough down there."
The reigning Sprint Cup champion needs a strong result this weekend after finishing in 42nd position in last week's Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway following contact with Jimmie Johnson midway through the race. That puts Harvick firmly in the elimination zone unless he can race his way out of danger this week or next weekend at Dover International Speedway, and Harvick has been notably fuming about Johnson all week. He has been pointedly refusing press questions at Loudon about what he might do to exact revenge against the six-time former Cup champion.
"I'm just here so I don't get fined," Harvick laughed when asked at the post-qualifying press conference for his thoughts on Johnson.
"I wasn't surprised that he was that upset," said Johnson, who said that he had tried to speak to Harvick since the incident but had not been able to. "It was just important to me to try and make contact with him and try to talk to him.
"I've been on the flip side of that before and although I wasn't happy to see whoever it was. It meant something to me and I appreciated the fact that they came to my bus to see me. That is all I was trying to do there.
"It really was a racing incident - I was just trying to get back on the racetrack, unfortunately, that contact took place," said Johnson about the incident itself. "That is not the situation that any of us wanted to have happen. Unfortunately, it's racing there was a lot going on on that restart and we had the contact."
Harvick's SHR team mate Kurt Busch will start alongside Penske's Brad Keselowski on row 2, while Jimmie Johnson himself will be on row three alongside Ganassi's Kyle Larson, the highest-placed non-Chase contender on Sunday's starting grid.
"Really pleased with the way the Haas Automation Chevy has been driving," said Busch, whose crew chief Tony Gibson was at Loudon despite undergoing an emergency appendectomy midweek. "The heart and the soul of this No. 41 team revolves around Tony Gibson. I really wanted to try to get him a pole today, didn't push hard enough on that first lap. I was going for it on lap two and our first lap ended up faster. Maybe I needed to push harder on that first lap."
"I feel like we're in a good spot. I just wish it was three spots higher, but it's something to be proud of," said Keselowski. "Some guys have different agendas than others. For us, we just need to have a good, solid day. If we can win, that would be great; that's what we want to do. That's what we're here to do. But a solid day would almost guarantee us advancing to the next round. The most important thing is to win [the title at] Homestead and we want to be there when it counts."
JGR's Denny Hamlin - already guaranteed to go through to the second round of the Chase after winning last week's race - will start from seventh place alongside Penske's Joey Logano, with Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman alongside Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon on row five.
"If I could have got more out of the car in the earlier sessions, we wouldn't have had to put so many laps on our tyres and been at such a disadvantage on that last run," said Hamlin. "Still pretty happy with the FedEx Freight Camry — felt like I lacked a little bit of speed early in those runs and it seemed like that kind of bit us in that late session."
"That's not bad," said Logano of his eighth place on the grid. "We need a little bit more speed in our car right now, both in race trim and qualifying trim, but we still have a decent starting spot. We're kind of where we need to be, so we're not awful. We just have to run our race and do our thing here - we don't need to get too spun out on anything. We'll just plug away a little bit tomorrow and find a little bit more balance in our car and let her eat."
The final round top-12 shoot-out was rounded out by two more Hendrick drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne.
JGR's Matt Kenseth missed out on making it into the final round by just one thousandths of a second and he will therefore start Sunday's race from 13th place. He was one of six Chase contenders not to make it into the final round of qualifying: also falling short were Kenseth's team mate Kyle Busch in 17th, RCR's Paul Menard in 20th, Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. in 21st and Ganassi's Jamie McMurray in 24th.
"Our balance was okay," insisted Kenseth. "Round one I thought we got it all and round two I tried a little harder than the first lap and it just didn't have it in it – kind of missed the corners – so the second lap made sure we hit everything perfect and I thought I got everything I could out of it. We just didn't have quite enough speed and we didn't have enough time to cool down and make a second run. Wish we had a little more speed too. Felt good in race trim today, so we'll just work on it tomorrow and hopefully get it up front on Sunday."
"Just didn't have the speed we needed here today in qualifying trim," added Busch. "If I tried to run too hard into the corner, I got way loose. We've got two practice sessions to work on this #18 Pedigree Camry tomorrow, so I feel confident we can make the necessary adjustments to be in good shape for Sunday."
"We were just way too loose for whatever reason," admitted Truex of his own qualifying effort. "I don't know the first round was loose, but I thought we could make it better. We tried to make it better and it actually made it worse. I'm a little confused right now."
"We just got really loose in qualifying," sighed McMurray. "It's so hard when you're trying to pick-up time in practice and every time we freed the car up, we got quicker. But we just got really loose. I don't know if it was that the sun went down or just really frustrating. It's a hard track to pass at and you want to qualify well. But if you have a good car, you can get to the front."
Failing to make it beyond the first round of qualifying was Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer, who will start Sunday's race from 26th place. Bowyer already has a mountain to climb having been handed a 25 point penalty for the use of illegal parts at Chicagoland, a setback that will likely prove insurmountable unless he can win his first race in three years either this weekend at New Hampshire or next week at Dover. MWR have said that they will appeal the penalty, and NASCAR have announced that the appeal will be held this Wednesday on September 30.
Only one driver failed to make the 43-car grid this week, with The Motorsports Group's Travis Kvapil going home early.
See full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying results from New hampshire Motor Speedway.
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