Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin secured pole position for this weekend's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday evening, in the final qualifying session of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
CLICK: Full NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying times from Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hamlin set a final round lap time of 30.568s (176.655mph) at the 1.5-mile circuit to secure his third pole of the season and his 23rd in 362 Cup starts. It's the first time in 11 outings at Homestead that he's started from the front.
“I definitely hoped we had something more to race for,” said Hamlin. "A couple of mechanical things took us out of the Chase but we hope to go out with a bang on Sunday.
"Everything's going good,” he added. "I wouldn't mind a little bit of rain tomorrow to not let these guys catch up in race trim."
The weather may indeed be a major factor this weekend, with showers and storms forecast to sweep over Florida. Earlier on Friday, the sole Cup practice session of the day had been curtailed due to showers, although qualifying itself proved to be unaffected by any inclement conditions.
Hamlin just beat Penske's Joey Logano for the top spot by 0.068s. "Not quite fast enough," said Logano of just missing out on pole. "I am proud of what my team was able to do there, just wish we were a little faster in that third round
Neither man is among the four drivers still in contention for the 2015 championship title, with Logano still getting over having just been eliminated after missing out on a win last weekend at Phoenix.
"Life is short. This is a drop in the bucket. Hopefully I have a long career in this and this is one season and a season we are proud of. A lot of wins and top-five finishes and nothing to hold our heads down about it."
Not that this dulled his eagerness to round of 2015 with one final win. "Obviously you keep in mind that we all know who is racing for a championship and race them with utmost respect but we all want to win the race as well," he said.
"We want to bookend the season from the 500 to Homestead and that is our goal this week. We keep in mind what the other driver's goal is and keep that in mind for sure. You don't want to be the guy to mess that up but you want to win the race too."
The last four in the title hunt don't have to win Sunday's race in order to clinch the title, they just have to finish ahead of the other three finalists. The highest-placed of the four remaining Chase contenders on the starting grid is Hamlin's JGR team mate Kyle Busch, who will be in third place when the 267-lap season finale takes the green flag at 3pm local time on Sunday.
"Well, it's not bad. We certainly got a good qualifying run there," said Busch. "Unfortunately it wasn't just a tick better, but we were kind of on edge there a little bit, but overall pleased with the speed and the way that we placed right there.
"Nothing to hang our heads about right now. With our team mate being on the pole, I'll definitely learn some things from what that was tonight, go back and talk to Denny about that, but also just our ability to be third right now behind another really fast guy throughout the season."
Alongside Busch will be Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman, while Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon qualified in fifth place for what will be his final competitive outing in NASCAR before he hangs up his racing helmet and retires - the outstanding question being whether he will be bowing out with a fifth championship to his name.
"Whew, it wasn't easy," said Gordon, who came close to being eliminated at the end of the first of the three rounds of qualifying. "I just totally messed up. That first run, without making a qualifying run in practice, I just didn't know how hard I could push it or how much the track had picked-up.
"It cost me that first run because I felt like I drove in deep and got back on the gas early, but I didn't push it near hard enough to make it through. I hate we had to [go back out and] put that extra lap on the tyres. I really believe we might have had a shot at this thing. I don't know if I could have run what Joey ran there, or the #11, but man - a top five, are you kidding me? That's awesome. I'm really proud of that."
Ryan Blaney will start alongside Gordon in sixth place, having announced earlier in the day that the Wood Brothers Racing #21 would be back in full time Cup competition in 2016 after seven years of being a part-time entry.
"We made really good adjustments between each round and that's really all you can ask for," said Blaney. "They did a good job adjusting and accounting for tyre fall off. We improved every round. That's all you can ask for besides getting the pole."
JGR's Carl Edwards and Penske's Brad Keselowski line up on the fourth row, ahead of Hendrick's Dale Earnhardt Jr. and RCR's Austin Dillon in ninth and tenth positions respectively.
"I'm glad we qualified well," said Earnhardt, another of the original 16 Chase contenders to have been eliminated from the title hunt before the final race of the season. "I'm pretty happy. I could have probably done a little better job. I didn't run a good line on the last run. 3 and 4 I probably should have run a little higher, I got tight and I tried to run a little too low. I should have ran on the fence. I think I could have run a tenth faster than we ran."
Arguably the outsider of the four remaining title contenders is Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr., who qualified in 11th place for the grand finale.
"It was a decent day for us, we never really could get the balance of the car just like we wanted. But for us really qualifying hasn't been our strong suit on these type tracks. I thought 11th was a decent effort.
"Everybody's going to remember this race no matter who is champion because he was in it, so to be part of that race is pretty cool, it's special," continued Truex. "Harvick being defending champion, Jeff Gordon's story obviously this is a huge weekend, it's really exciting honestly just to be a part of that, to be a part of his last race and last chance.
"Kyle certainly is a guy we're going to have to race with for a long, long time. He's very talented. This is his first shot for a championship in the series, too. I think we have respect for each other's stories, how we got here, what we have on the line, and for the most part on the racetrack we all respect each other as well.
"It's still going to be a hell of a battle. It's not going to be, Oh, gee, man, you're faster, you go take the lead. It's not going to be like that at all. That changes on the racetrack. It's going to be a fun race to see who can come out on top."
The final place in the pole shoot-out round went to Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson, which meant that reigning champion Kevin Harvick - considered by many to be the favourite to retain his crown coming into the weekend - failed to make it through to the final round of qualifying. Despite topping the first round, he fell at the second hurdle when he was edged out by just two thousandths of a second meaning that he will start from 13th place on Sunday alongside Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola.
"Round 1 was really good for us, and then we went to round 2 and just really, really tight in the next two runs that we made. You know, we just never really recovered from what we did in the first round to make it repeat. All in all, I just think our balance was too tight. We'll work on the race car and go from there.
"It's really no different than any other week," he pointed out. "I mean, we've not qualified as well this year as we had last year, especially on some of these types of racetracks ... It's really not anywhere too far outside of the box from where we've qualified in a lot of these races this year on these types of racetracks."
With 45 cars entered for the race, two cars failed to make the grid - Jeb Burton (BK Racing) and Reed Sorenson (Premium Motorsports) were the two men going home early when the dust settled on qualifying.
See full NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying times from Homestead-Miami Speedway.