Kyle Busch led a Joe Gibbs Racing 1-2-3 in qualifying for this week's Good Sam 500 race at Phoenix International Raceway, clinching pole position with a final round lap of 26.014s (138.387mph) at the 1.022 mile low-banked tri-oval race track.
"We just cooled everything back down to make sure we gave it everything we got,” Busch said after the end of qualifying. “We just made a couple of fine-tuning adjustments from what we ran before and it was a tick faster, not much, just a tick."
Busch was just 0.165s ahead of his JGR team mate Carl Edwards who will start alongside him on the front row on Sunday afternoon's race. A third member of the team, Denny Hamlin, was less than two hundredths of a second from deposing Edward from the shotgun spot.
It's Busch's 18th pole in 394 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and his first of the year, having originally thought that he had succeeded in clinching his first pole of 2016 by topping the times at Atlanta two weeks ago. However on that occasion he was subsequently stripped of the top spot after failing technical inspection and forced to start from the rear instead.
Busch's older brother Kurt inherited pole at Atlanta and then topped qualifying the following week at the Busch brothers' home circuit in Las Vegas. Kyle's success in clinching pole at Phoenix makes it a hat-trick of consecutive poles in the first four events of 2016.
Kurt remained on good form again this weekend, topping the sole practice session on Friday and then heading the times in the first round of qualifying. Ultimately he couldn't repeat that form in the later rounds, but was still fast enough to clinch fourth place on the grid.
"I felt like we managed qualifying fairly well," he said. "It wasn't like we could attack the track though. In practice I hit one lap perfect and I told the guys 'it's going to be hard to duplicate that lap tonight. Let's make sure we tighten her up a little bit.' And the fast lap that put us fourth overall we were a fuzz on the loose side. We are doing a good job reading and communicating with each other and understanding the lower downforce is going to be tougher in qualifying."
Hendrick Motorsports Jimmie Johnson will roll off pit lane in fifth place. However, the #48 will have to drop to the back before the green flag, as Johnson ended up in a heavy impact with the wall during the pole shoot-out after the car suddenly took up off the track heading into turn 2. Johnson was cleared by the in-field medical centre, but nonetheless still seemed somewhat shaken by the incident immediately afterwards.
"I don't know for sure," Johnson said when asked what had caused the incident. "Certainly something happened and the car went straight; I just don't know what caused it at this point.
"Just a really hard impact to the outside wall. Thankful that we have SAFER Barriers and soft walls. We're really disappointed because we had such a fast race car and the guys have been working so hard to get this thing tuned up. Thankfully, we have tomorrow to work on the back-up car and try to get it up-to-speed and get it going, but this is certainly not what we wanted right now."
It wasn't the best of days for the Hendrick squad in general, with Johnson's team mate Kasey Kahne having earlier triggered a red flag in the first round of qualifying when the #5 suffered a terminal engine issue that caused a fire. The time he had set was enough to nominally put him into the second round meaning that he ended up being classified in 24th place, but like Johnson he will have to start from the back after being forced to take o the back-up car.
"I got out of the car about when it started smoking, but I shut the car off in Turn 1 after I took the lap, and then in Turn 3 it started smoking a little," Kahne explained. "I could hear it running so I shut everything off, batteries, everything in there. And then I got out and it was still running. It just kept running until I drove away in the ambulance. So, I don't know. I'm just really confused on what was going on. I have no idea."
Behind Johnson, the fourth JGR driver Matt Kenseth qualified in sixth place ahead of Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing), Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing), Joey Logano (Team Penske) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing).
"The track has been a little weird today, really slick, and it doesn't seem to be tightening up at all," said Larson. "It was a weird qualifying session for sure. I had to make a couple of runs there the last qualifying session. I hate that Jimmie Johnson got into the wall, but it helped us because I was able to go faster the next time out. I think seventh a little bit better than what I thought we would be. Happy about that."
"We kind of got screwed there with those red flags coming out," sighed Logano. "It was crazy. We had one and the track sits for a little bit and they blow all the stuff from the top lane into the bottom lane and then you go back out there and you are ice skating. I don't know. It just sucks because we had a much faster car that than but we just didn't get a shot at it."
"That wasn't bad," said Stenhouse by contrast. "That is about where we were in practice, give or take a little bit. We were really loose the first run so I think it threw everyone off a little bit trying to play catch up after that first round so we ended up tightening the car up for the second round and was pretty good but then we were really wondering what to do for the third round. We loosened it up, just not enough. All in all we were really happy with that."
The final drivers to make it into the final round were Jamie McMurray (Chip Ganassi Racing) and Ryan Blaney (Wood Brothers Racing).
"We didn't have a lot of speed that last round unfortunately but it isn't a bad day for us making it to the last round," said Blaney. "That is about all you can ask for and we worked hard at it today ... I am most looking forward to getting out there and seeing what we can do in the race on Sunday."
Substituting for the injured Tony Stewart in the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, Ty Dillon will start from 28th place after hitting the wall in the first round of qualifying.
"I was a little loose in, but I was trying to make some time into 3 and drove in a little aggressive and it jumped out on me getting in," explained Dillon. "I tried to save it as good as I can and I think we will definitely be able to fix it, but just hate to step in this thing and tear it up in qualifying like that and not make it to the next round."
There's still no timetable for Stewart's return to competition after he sustained an L1 vertebra burst fracture in a non-racing accident before the start of the season, but the three-time Cup champion - who will retire from racing at the end of this season - revealed this week that he had been cleared to start rehabilitation exercises following his latest medical check-up and x-rays.
All 39 cars qualified for the grid for Sunday's race which gets underway at 3.45pm local time (7.45pm GMT). Before that, drivers will have two 50-minute practice sessions on Saturday to fine-tune their race set-ups.
See full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying and practice times from Friday at Phoenix.
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