Hendrick Motorsport's Jimmie Johnson proved that he's once and for all shrugged aside the disappointment of crashing out of the 2015 Chase, and followed up his race-winning performance at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend by claiming pole position for this weekend's Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
CLICK: Full NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying results from Phoenix International Raceway
"There's nothing better. If you can't be in it, you may as well go out there and spoil it!" he laughed, after he claimed his first pole of the year and the 34th in 506 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts with a final round time of 25.147s (143.158mph) on the one-mile oval, which put him less than half a tenth faster than Stewart-Haas Racing's Kurt Busch
"We didn't have the summer that we wanted, but these guys have been working so hard on the #48 team and at Hendrick Motorsports so I'm very happy to see the progress and the direction things are going," said the six-time former champion. "It's been a little bit, everywhere. If we keep doing that, we're going to close this season out just like we want to and be ready for 2016."
"Qualifying has never really been my sweet spot," Johnson admitted. This will be the first time that he has been on pole since Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2014. "It's nice to get one. I definitely wanted one this year. I didn't think it would come at this 'new' [recently resurfaced] Phoenix racetrack. The 'old' Phoenix was real good to us, but we have been searching to get it right here."
Starting alongside Johnson on the front row, Kurt Busch is the highest-placed on the grid of the eight remaining Chase contenders. Busch realistically needs an outright win in Sunday's race if he's going to make it into the final line-up of four drivers still in contention for this year's championship title in next weekend's season finale at Homestead-Miami. Busch has won at Phoenix before, but it was almost exactly ten years ago in 2005.
"It's great," beamed Busch. "The Haas Automation Chevy has been fast since we got here. The way that this weekend is shaping up for us it's a great start. We know we need to win. The car, the crew and everybody we are all clicking on eight cylinders. We just didn't quite get the pole, Johnson put down an awesome lap, so congrats to him. We are outside pole and we will go from there."
The second row of the grid is headed up by Johnson's team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. alongside Joe Gibbs Racing's Carl Edwards, the second Chase contender on the grid and one who is somewhat better placed than Busch to forced his way into the final on points even if he's not able to win the race.
"We had a fast car and I'm excited to go race now," said Edwards. "We have a good starting spot, which was our first mission. Obviously we want to be better than fourth, but we're close enough to the front that we have a good pit stall selection, all our guys have been working hard and I think it paid off today."
If Edwards is able to force his way into the title finale then it will likely have to come at the expense of Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr., who is one place above him in the points and one position below him on the grid in fifth place where he lines up on the third row of the grid alongside Ganassi's Kyle Larson, who is not one of the drivers in the Chase.
"We adjusted quite a bit, but the thing was we knew we were going to be off that first run just because our car, for whatever reason, was really bad on stickers [brand new tyres]," admitted Truex. "It was like that practice. And then after that, the second and third run, it was really good. So, it was close. It was a nail-biter.
"I was pretty confident throughout the whole thing, but all-in-all, it was a great job by all the guys and fifth is a really good starting spot for us here and we'll get a good pit stall. I feel like our car will race better than it qualifies. We've struggled here in qualifying for whatever reason, the past few times; but we've raced really well."
An impressive qualifying showing from JGR's Erik Jones sees the teenager starting from seventh place on the grid in the #20 car, where he is sitting in for the suspended Matt Kenseth. Kenseth is currently suspended for deliberately and dangerously taking out Penske's Joe Logano at Martinsville two weeks ago, but will be back in the car again next weekend at Homestead.
"Good day really for us in the Dollar General Camry," said Jones. "Compared to practice where our mock run was and then the gains we made between then and now was definitely good. Nice to have another top ten starting spot for Sunday and it's definitely a good place to work from."
Jones will be starting alongside reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick. Not only is Harvick relatively secure in the points, just needing a solid finish this weekend to ensure that he is able to defend his title next week, he is also one of the strongest performers at Phoenix having chalked up six wins at the circuit - including a sweep of both 2014 visits and victory in the sprint race earlier this year as well.
"We didn't qualify as well as we did last time, but the car was really good in race trim as we practised today," said Harvick. "We just never really found anything that worked for us in qualifying trim."
Hendrick's Kasey Kahne was ninth fastest in the third and final round of qualifying, meaning that he will start alongside JGR's Kyle Busch. Busch is currently in second place in the points standings, meaning that as long as he can avoid an early accident or technical issue he should be able to make it into the Homestead line-up with a top ten finish - a remarkable feat if he does so given that he was forced to sit out the first 11 races of the season after being injured in an Xfinity Series race accident at Daytona in February.
"I'm not so sure 10th is going to get it done for us," he worried. "We definitely have to be smart about it and make some really good changes to the car and get it to where I need it in order to run probably seventh or better. I think that will probably get it done.
"If the #4 [Harvick] wins, that puts us in a must race situation with the #78 [Truex] or #19 [Edwards] depending on how that kind of goes in order to be the guy that transfers through. We'd love to win it, first and foremost. This M&M's Crispy Camry team deserves that and we'll work as hard as we need to tomorrow to try to do that on Sunday."
Busch is second in the points only to Hendrick's Jeff Gordon, who is in any case already locked-in to the final four line-up thanks to his victory at Martinsville Speedway a fortnight ago. Gordon intends to retire from competition after next week's race and could very well do so as the new reigning champion - which if he were to clinch it would be his fifth career title in 14 years and 797 Sprint Cup outings.
"I'm pretty optimistic," insisted Gordon. "We had a good race run in practice and we struggled in qualifying trim, but we made it better. That last run wasn't our best, just got too tight there, so we will start 11th but still definitely an improvement from practice."
Ganassi's Jamie McMurray was the final driver to make it into the top 12 shoot-out, while JGR's Denny Hamlin missed out on progressing to the final round by just 0.008s.
However, it was an even more disappointing outcome for the Penske contingent in particular. Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are now so deeply in arrears in the points that they can only stay in the Chase by winning the race - and since only one of them cam do so it means that the gloves will be off between team mates. With that in mind, neither man got the sort of grid position they were after, the two Penske drivers being the only two Chase contenders to fail to make it into the pole shoot-out.
"I wish we were in the next round and going for a pole, but the fact of the matter is we're going to start 14th and we're going to work on our car tomorrow and get it ready to win a race on Sunday," said Logano, whose hopes of making it to Homestead still in contention for the title took a huge hit when he was taken out by Kenseth at Martinsville. Kenseth had been seeking retribution for a clash between the pair the previous month at Kansas which had in turn cost Kenseth his own place in the Chase.
"You always look at things you could do differently," he continued. "As a driver, I can always find things that could be better and as a driver you always look at your car and where it could be better as well. We just missed it a little bit.
"This hasn't been a bad race track for us by no means, we just haven't gotten that win yet. We've been fast at every type of race track this year, so I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish as far as that goes. That makes us feel confident anywhere we go is when we've won at races at tracks we haven't won at before this year. I feel ready to go. I know my team is ready to go. We'll work on this thing a little bit more tomorrow, get it good in race trim and go for it then."
Keselowski will start four places further adrift in 18th place. Further back down the grid, SHR's Danica Patrick will start from 21st place alongside Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman. AJ Allmendinger will line up in 23rd in the JTG Daugherty Racing #47, Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer is in 27th, and SHR owner-driver Tony Stewart in 31st place.
With 43 cars entered in this weekend's 312-lap, 312-mile race on Sunday afternoon, everyone made it onto the grid and into the race meaning no one will have to go home early.
See full NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying results from Phoenix International Raceway
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