The second round of NASCAR's west coast swing takes place this weekend with the 267-lap race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This will be the 29th time that the Cup Series has visited the 1.5-mile oval, with Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin winning the two races here last season.
Qualifying for the Pennzoil 400 featured ten drivers in a shootout for pole position. Oddly enough, the pole sitter has only won this race one time (Kyle Busch) in 28 tries but 36 percent of the races have been won by a driver starting inside the top five.
The ten-car shootout for the top spot was won by Joe Gibbs Racing's Christopher Bell. It is the first career Cup pole for the Toyota driver, and he will share the front row with Larson in the No. 5 Chevrolet. It was an impressive afternoon for Bell, who loved every minute of it. "I’ll tell you what, that’s a hell of a lot more fun than qualifying the 550 package."
Bell posted a final lap of 182.673 mph in his No. 20 JGR machine. It was fitting that these two will start from the front row after each led their respective qualifying groups in the first round.
“I feel really good about our car, that’s for sure,” said Bell. “In practice, it took probably two runs to get the balance to where I was comfortable but I knew first run out that we were pretty competitive. Really happy where we’re at. I love Las Vegas. I wish it was going to be a little bit warmer so we could slide around a little bit more but Vegas always puts on a great race.”
Row 2 will feature a pair of talented Ford drivers in Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe. A pair of champions in Chase Elliott and Joey Logano will roll off in Row 3. Tyler Reddick and Denny Hamlin will start in Row 4 and Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Austin Dillon complete the top ten starters for Sunday's race.
Outside of Briscoe, the Stewart Haas Racing drivers struggled to find pace in qualifying, with Kevin Harvick the slowest of the four Fords. Las Vegas native Kurt Busch had a hiccup during his qualifying run and will start 31st tomorrow. Greg Biffle with NY Racing is the only non-chartered team entered and qualified 26th in his No. 44 Chevrolet.
One driver that was not able to qualify today is Las Vegas native Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a left rear tire go down during the opening minutes of practice, and he made heavy contact with the Turn 3 outside wall. The 2009 race winner will start 37th tomorrow in a backup car.
Busch said there was no warning that something was wrong when he entered the turn. “No, just went down. I went low off of 2 one time but never heard anything that I hit anything or anything like that. So just going down the backstretch felt it start to go down and just happened so fast it was too late to slow down and do anything. I hate it for everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing and what we’re trying to do here, parts crunch and everything else. But what do you do? When they don’t hold air, then you can’t make a corner.”
Following the short practice session, single-car, single-lap qualifying got underway with drivers split up into two groups. The top five drivers from each group advanced to the second round of qualifying to battle for the pole with another single-car, single-lap run. Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr just missed the cut and will start from Row 6 tomorrow.
Ford has dominated at Las Vegas, winning 13 of the 28 races here, with some of the biggest names claiming victory here in recent years. Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin have combined to win 11 of the last 12 races at Las Vegas. Of the last 23 race winners at Las Vegas, 21 of them were a past champion. The two exceptions were Carl Edwards and Hamlin last fall. Team Penske, Stewart Haas Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing have won 12 of the last 14 here.
With practice and qualifying taking place on Saturday, NASCAR conducted their pre-qualifying inspections on Friday night. Five teams will be losing crew members for tomorrow's race, due to multiple inspection failures. Car chiefs Robert Smith (Kevin Harvick), Matt Barndt (Chase Elliott), Cody Sauls (Harrison Burton), Tony Manzer (Todd Gilliland) and engineer Nicholas Sowa (Josh Bilicki) were the crew members ejected. All cars all passed on the third time through inspection.
As part of the penalties handed out, each team also lost pit selection. Gilliland’s team is already without crew chief Seth Barbour as well as crew members Jourdan Osinskie and Tanner Andrews. All three were suspended on Tuesday for four races when the No. 38 car suffered a loose wheel in last Sunday’s race at Fontana.
Coverage for Sunday's Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas begins at 3:30 PM ET on FOX.