Brad Keselowski was in searing form in Texas on Friday, topping the sole 85-minute practice session in the early afternoon and then successfully dominating all three rounds of qualifying to ensure that he will start at the head of the field for Sunday's AAA Texas 500.
It's Keselowski's third pole of the year and his 11th pole in 231 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. It's the first time in 15 appearances that he will have started from the front at Texas Motor Speedway.
CLICK: Full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying times from Texas Motor Speedway.
"This is a good start but our ultimate goal is to be the fastest at the end of the race on Sunday," Keselowski said after qualifying finished. "It is a good start and it gets us up front with a great pit stall and hopefully we can make the most of it.
"I am pumped about this race. Track position is important everywhere and here isn't as much as maybe a few others because the track wears out and you see some comers and goers with the way the track wears out but we will still take it."
Keselowski clinched the top spot with a final round lap of with a lap of
27.421s (196.929mph) on the 1.5-mile circuit on Friday evening, putting him
ahead of Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick, who had also been forced to play second fiddle to Keselowski in the earlier practice session too.
"The first round I didn't feel like we had the raw speed that a lot of the guys had," Harvick admitted. "I got my entry a little bit screwed up into 3 that time and got it pointed the wrong direction in the middle of the corner and then I had to put a wheel in it and got it cocked sideways and scrubbed some speed.
"Our Budweiser/Jimmy John's team did a great job in keeping up with the changes that we needed throughout the three rounds and we were able to keep it pretty consistent," he noted. "I think that shows a lot about what our race car is going to be like in race trim and just how consistent it was throughout the speed on each round ... All-in-all just a continuous improvement throughout the rounds and wound up being pretty good."
The second row was also an all-Chase line-up, with Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch securing third place on the grid alongside Keselowski's Penske team mate Joey Logano.
"We were kind of a little loose the first couple runs and tried to snug it up just a little bit there for that last run," shrugged Busch. "Just got a little too tight on the exit of the corners and we tried to expect that to come about as we were tightening up the car, but we just didn't quite get it enough. Overall, really good effort there for the M&M's Crispy Camry, happy with that and looking forward to having a really good race here."
Having only just scrapped into the Eliminator Round of the Chase play-offs by the skin of his teeth, Busch is currently in second place in the points standings and noted that he wasn't under pressure to go all-out for a win this weekend.
"We don't need to win, but we would love to win. I feel like this is a good opportunity for us to have a really good day and for us to score a victory. We come to every race trying to win and this one's no different. I hope that Texas will bode well for us and we can score that win. If not, a solid top-five finish is exactly what we need."
"That was pretty good, just not quite enough though," said sixth-place man Logano. "I think we just need to work on it a little bit. It is over now, so we will get to work on race trim and try to get a little bit faster there. I don't think we are bad in race trim, but I do think we have a little bit of work to do there, so I am anxious to get at that tomorrow and get to work on it and find a little bit more speed for Sunday."
Kyle Larson is the first non-Chase driver on the grid and was more than happy with his effort that saw him clinch fifth place. "It was a really good run. I'm really happy with fifth. We improved from each round, so that is good. The Target Chevrolet has been good; we've been happy with it all day. Just have to maximize starting close to the front because this is a very long race and you need to be there at the end."
Standing in for the suspended Matt Kenseth, JGR development driver Erik Jones qualified in an impressive sixth place for what will be only his second official Sprint Cup appearance. Jones will be doing 'the triple' this weekend as he will also be competing in Saturday's Xfinity Series race as well as his regular outing in the Camping World Truck Series, in which he's currently the championship points leader.
"It's just been kind of a busy day and going back and forth between all three series and all these garages and trying to get our stuff set-up right," the 19-year-old admitted. "I think today was the busiest day overall for us — just the sense that we're practising all three cars and we're racing tonight in the Truck Series.
"I haven't talked to Matt. I'll probably send him a text tonight and just see what's up and talk to him a little bit about this track," added Jones, who only knew he'd be driving in this weekend's Cup race when Kenseth's appeals against suspension were rejected on Thursday.
"We'd done some things throughout the week to try to get prepared a little bit. Mainly, fitting in the #20 car and making sure everything was going to be somewhat close. I found out I guess for sure last night when everything was all said and done."
The only other Chase driver to make it through to the final round of qualifying at Texas was SHR's Kurt Busch who will start from seventh place for Sunday afternoon's race. "I raised the track bar on that last run and the race car got tight on me," he explained. "I struggled a little bit with getting off turn four all day. The Haas Automation Chevrolet was really good off the truck in race trim and I'm looking forward to the race on Sunday."
Alongside Busch will be Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson, while rounding out the final 12 in the pole shoot-out round were Denny Hamlin (JGR), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Hendrick), Danica Patrick (SHR) and Greg Biffle (Roush Fenway Racing).
"We made some big, big improvements from practice," said Earnhardt. "I was pretty happy even though we obviously wanted to do better than tenth but I think we made some really good gains from practice so hopefully that can help us for the race. Starting closer to the front is great for your pit selection, but there is a lot of grooves and room here to race, so you can pass and have fun."
Unfortunately Earnhardt's optimism about getting a good pit stall selection was thwarted by the subsequent announcement that the #88 team is being penalised for receiving a fourth warning for technical inspection issues. It means that he will actually now have the last pick of pit box - or in other words, no pick at all.
"The front took off on the exit of 2 on the last run," commented Patrick. "So we didn't get quite as good of a lap as we wanted to. But overall, my GoDaddy team did a great job of improving the car from practice to qualifying today and we were able to get a really good starting spot for Sunday's race."
"That was decent," said Biffle. "We have had about that kind of speed since we've been off the truck, around the top 15 or so. We were just talking about how we are searching for that last little bit. We don't know where it is or what it is but we are gaining on it. We are better than we were in the spring so that gives me a little confidence. We will just keep working at it."
That means three Chase drivers failed to make the cut for the final round, with JGR's Carl Edwards missing out on progressing by just four thousandths of a second.
"Just a little bit loose, but the car's fast though," insisted Edwards. "Just a little loose and I thought it would come to me in the second run and it didn't. That's how this goes with the changing conditions and the competition the way it is, you have to get every last little thing. My guys did a great job with the car, it's got a lot of speed in it. We'll work on it tomorrow and go racing and hopefully we can get to victory lane with SportClips and these guys. We have to run well here this weekend."
Hendrick's Jeff Gordon was only able to qualify in 18th place, but his job is already largely done as his victory means that he will go into the season finale at Homestead-Miami with a guaranteed shot at winning the 2015 title in his last race before he retires from competition. That's not to say that he was happy with his performance in qualifying, however.
"We are just lacking speed," he sighed. "It's crazy fast right now. It's ridiculous how much faster it is this time around than earlier in the year. That first time out I was wide open and we were still a few tenths off. Obviously we are looking into that. I felt really good about some race runs that we had today. I'm pretty optimistic, but that was about all we had and obviously want more."
The lowest of the eight remaining Chase contenders was Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr., who struggled in qualifying and only managed to set the 23rd fastest time meaning he will have quite a bit of work ahead of him on Sunday if he's to keep his hopes of making it into the final with a chance of pulling off an upset championship victory.
"We never really clicked in qualifying trim today and that's why we're starting in the middle of the pack," said Truex. "But we've been there before and fought our way to the front. As I keep on saying this team never quits. We're always working hard to find the right combination and I am hopeful that our car will perform better in race trim during tomorrow's two practice sessions."
With 45 cars entered, the two drivers failing to make it onto the 43-car grid for Sunday's 334-lap, 501-mile race were Joey Gase (Go FAS Racing) and Reed Sorenson (RAB Racing).
See full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying and Friday practice results from Texas Motor Speedway.