Hendrick Motorsport enjoyed an impressive qualifying performance at Talladega Superspeedway, with all four cars in the top five and Jeff Gordon leading the way as he completed a sweep of 'Dega poles in his final season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition before retirement.
The 44-year-old sealed the top spot for the CampingWorld.com 500 with a lap of 49.234s (194.500mph) on the 2.666-mile circuit, his fourth pole of the season and his 81st in 793 Cup race starts. He's started the restrictor plate event at Talladega on four occasions, most recently in the spring race here in May.
CLICK: Full qualifying results for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway.
"This team has just done an amazing job this year on restrictor plate tracks, just the preparation of the cars," said Gordon afterward. "I've had some of the fastest restrictor plate cars this year because of their hard work. When we've gotten the opportunity to qualify we have been on the pole each time. That is not an easy thing to do and they have pulled that off.
"We really feel like we were dominant here in May," he continued. "I did know we had a fast car, but I wasn't sure. This is a different car than what we had here earlier this year. I mean everybody felt confident in the car and it was really fast in the drafting sessions, but we weren't exactly sure when we made a mock qualifying run if we had what it took for the pole, but after that first run I knew the boys did what they do. They just are so good at all the details and it goes all the way back to the engine shop, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports."
Gordon wasn't alone from the Hendrick line-up in dominating qualifying: his team mate Kasey Kahne will line-up alongside him on the front row having missed out on pole by just 0.219s, while Jimmie Johnson starts in third place and Dale Earnhardt Jr - who won the most recent race here in the sprint - will be in fifth position for the green flag tomorrow.
"Just keeping your car in the right places on the race track and have a fast enough car at the same time," said Kahne when asked for the secret of finding success at Talladega. "And I think all the Hendrick cars are. I think Dale is going to be really good. He was the guy to beat the first race here and Jeff is obviously really fast and so it Jimmie. So it should be a good day for Hendrick Motorsports!"
"We feel like our car is going to race really well and just ready to go," added Earnhardt, who like Gordon is still flying the flag for Hendrick in the Chase championship play-offs this weekend. "It is good enough. Some of the guys had a little more speed."
The only driver able to head off a full Hendrick 1-2-3-4 sweep of the front two rows of the grid was Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth, who will start from fourth place in a race that he badly wants to win if he's to avoid being knocked out of the Chase after this weekend's event.
"Everybody wants to qualify well and try to get an early pick on your pit stall if you can and do all those kinds of things," said Kenseth. "With this kind of racing you make one wrong move or pick a line to stop moving then you could be 30th before you even know it within a lap. Starting position not super, super important here, but yet I'd rather be toward the front than in the back.
"One thing about Talladega is you always have to expect the unexpected so who knows what's going to happen. These guys did a great job on our DeWALT Camry, we had decent speed in it today and it drove good yesterday. Just anxious to get lined up for the race tomorrow and see what happens."
Roush Fenway Racing's Trevor Bayne will line-up alongside Earnhardt on row three, while row four sees resigning champion Kevin Harvick in the Stewart-Haas Racing #14 alongside JGR's Denny Hamlin, who is in a strong position to make it through to the third round of the Chase as he's currently safely in second place in the points standings.
"It was pretty good," said Hamlin of his qualifying performance on Saturday. "I'm usually way back in the back, so this is a good improvement and we're going to start in the top ten, so it's pretty good."
"It's important definitely. It sets the tone for us early in the race for sure. We're going to try to stay up front if we can and play the strategy as best we can and try to win the race. That would guarantee us in."
Ryan Blaney continued to impress in the part-time Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers #21 entry in ninth place ahead of official Penske pair Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. The final spot in the top 12 pole shoot-out final round of qualifying was taken by SHR's Tony Stewart.
Obviously, you want more speed, but we can't complain," said Blaney. "We've got four Fords in the top 12, so that was really good to know we have that speed and are surrounded by teammates. That's good to have and makes you a little bit more comfortable. I think we have a good car for tomorrow and we've got a pretty fast one. We'll just try to stay up front most of the day and hopefully avoid any troubles and maybe we'll be in a position to make a run towards the front at the end."
Logano on the other hand had been expecting better than tenth on the grid: "I don't know what happened there. We just lost a little speed from run one to run two and I'm not sure why. [But] we'll start towards the front and be okay. Qualifying here isn't really a huge deal, but definitely having the track position by the end of the race will be important. We're going to run hard."
"Obviously, we have decent speed in our car to be in the final round of qualifying and that's something to go racing with," said Keselowski. "I think we've been good here year over year with the Miller Lite Ford. It's always hard to say how you are in practice and even qualifying here to drop the green and where you start doesn't seem to make a big difference."
Five of the current 12 Chase contenders failed to progress from the first round of qualifying on Saturday. As a result, SHR's Kurt Busch will start from 14th place on the grid and JGR pair Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch from 15th and 16th respectively, while Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman will have to work his way forward from 18th position.
"We gave it all we had with the Haas Automation Chevrolet," said Kurt Busch. "The way that impound qualifying works you are more focused on the race and whatever it gives you in qualifying is what you get. Real proud of this team and the way that everybody has come together here in the Chase. We are as far as we are through this Chase because of great team work."
"We'll just go race hard, we've got a fast Toyota Camry," said Edwards. "It's just going to be a 500 mile battle. Just have to get our car up to the front, we'll be in the front half of the field it looks like so we'll have a shot to go up there and race for the lead. Just try to stay out of trouble – I think it's going to be a pretty exciting race."
Kyle Busch is one of the four drivers currently in the drop zone and in need of a strong result tomorrow if he's to keep his title hopes alive. Even so, he wasn't disappointed to be some way off pole position in Saturday's qualifying session.
"I've qualified on one speedway pole in my career and that's a lot of speedway races," he pointed out. "That was probably the worst we ever ran in the race so qualifying doesn't mean anything - I would much rather we just draw a pill and line up and race them like short track days. We will be just fine."
Newman is similarly at rick of bring cut from title contention this weekend and was in a whatever shall be, shall be state of mind when it came to Talladega. "We will take our Caterpillar Chevrolet and have fun with it tomorrow. Obviously, nobody knows what the outcome is going to be. We have one big race to keep in mind. Winning the race would be pretty cool too."
Winning the race would be an automatic pass into the third round of the Chase play-offs for anyone who managed to achieve it. So far in this three-race phase of the play-offs, both of the races to date have been won by Logano who is the only driver confirmed as through to the final eight.
Victory tomorrow might be exactly what Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. might have to pull out of the bag. He's currently on the bubble in terms of progressing to the next stage of the Chase and his hopes of squeaking through took a huge hit in qualifying when his qualifying lap time was disallowed after he dipped onto the apron below the double yellow line, a strict no-no at Talladega this weekend.
"I didn't know you couldn't do that here in qualifying," admitted Truex. "We have done it the last few times. I didn't get the memo that you couldn't do that this time around. Just done what we have done here the last few times and didn't realise there was a rule change."
He insisted that it wouldn't make any difference to the way he approached tomorrow's crucial race. "It won't change at all. We started in the back last time too. We will be fine," he said when explaining his strategy for the race. "Same as everybody else - trying to get to the end!"
With 45 entries for this weekend's event two drivers ended up being sent home early, with Jeb Burton and Michael Annett both missing out on the 43-car starting grid for Sunday's 188 lap, 500 mile race which gets underway at 1.30pm local time, 6.30pm GMT.
See full qualifying results for Sunday's CampingWorld.com 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway.