FONTANA, Calif. – With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series qualifying field thinned significantly by inspection issues, Martin Truex Jr. won his second straight pole of the season in Friday’s knockout qualifying session at Auto Club Speedway.
Avoiding the trouble from the seams between lanes that tripped up first- and second-round leader Kevin Harvick in the final round, Truex covered the two-mile distance in 38.592 seconds (186.567 mph) in the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, edging fellow Camry driver Kyle Busch (186.437 mph) by .027 seconds for the top starting spot in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
During time trials that saw only 24 of the 37 cars entered pass inspection and make qualifying attempts, Truex won the first Busch Pole Award of the season under sponsorship announced this week. The pole was Truex’s second of the season, following last week’s at Phoenix, and the 17th of his career.
“I felt really good about our chances after practice,” Truex said. “We opted to stay on one set of tires the whole practice and ran our fastest lap on scuffs… I felt like that was a big advantage for us. We ran the fastest lap of anyone on scuffed tires and felt like that would bode well for us in qualifying.
“We really just had to put it all together.”
Harvick, who will try for his fourth consecutive victory on Sunday, posted the fastest lap of the day in the first round, running 188.744 mph (38.147 seconds), eclipsing Denny Hamlin’s track-record 188.511 mph (38.194 seconds) set in March 2016. But the handling of Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford deteriorated, and he fell to 10th in the final round.
“We were just tight as we went through every round,” Harvick said. “We had the same thing in practice, where the second round was just so much tighter than the first round. We tried to adjust on it and we made it better entering the corner and through the middle of the corner.
“But as we got to the exit, right at that three-quarter mark, I just kept getting tighter and tighter, and then I got up the race track and got hung on the seam and got loose and kind of screwed it up.”
Kyle Larson qualified third, followed by Erik Jones, giving Toyota’s three of the top four starting spots. Austin Dillon earned the fifth position on the grid, followed by Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney.
None of the four Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets made it through inspection in time to make a qualifying attempt. Two of Harvick’s teammates — Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola — were sidelined for the session by inspection failures after posting top-five speeds in Friday’s opening practice.
The silver lining for the cars that will start 25th on back on owner points, led by Denny Hamlin in 25th, is a tire advantage. Cars that took laps in qualifying will start on their scuffed qualifying tires. Those who didn’t take times will start on new tires, and Truex considers that a significant advantage.
“It’s a huge advantage on that first run, especially if it goes long,” Truex said. “In my mind, if you’re not probably in the top four, you’re better off being 25th. It’s going to be a big deal. For us, hopefully we can get out front and get a big lead early in clean air and kind of get separated…
“I know in Atlanta we started on stickers, and it was like a video game those first five laps, because you had so much more grip than everybody else.”