The hottest team in NASCAR the past month has been the No. 22 of Joey Logano. Not only did the Team Penske car sweep all three races in the Contender Round of the Chase, but did so in commanding fashion.
On Sunday, the Chase will take its turn into the Eliminator Round and Logano will sit atop the leader board as the green flag flies as he won the pole for the shortest track on the schedule. 98.548 mph was the speed that Logano laid down and his quickest lap in any of the three sessions came in the final round.
“It’s an amazing run we’re on right now,” Logano said after his hot lap. “This Shell-Pennzoil team is unbelievable. I’m just the lucky guy who gets to drive this thing. We’re doing everything right, but that can end in a blink of an eye. Starting toward the front is big here at Martinsville. You get a good pit stall and just have to keep the car up front.”
Logano swept the poles at Martinsville in 2015, and he has had the tendency to qualify well at the half-mile short track in the past, but in the race he finishes below his starting position. He does have top-five finishes in the past three races at the paperclip.
Martin Truex, Jr. will begin Sunday from the second starting position. Truex has been overlooked by many in the Chase as a serious championship threat. However, since the Chase has begun the No. 78 team has gained some of the speed back that they had earlier in the season. He had top 10’s in the spring at all three tracks in the Eliminator Round with a best of sixth coming at this very race track.
The first non-Chase is AJ Allmendinger who had one of his beetter qualifying runs of the season on Friday. Lately, the No. 47 team has struggled, but Martinsville has always been one of Allmendinger’s better tracks and he will look to spoil the party for the Chasers.
Jamie McMurray will lineup from the fourth position on Sunday. Martinsville has also always been one of McMurray’s better tracks, whether or not he finished well. The No. 1 team is always a factor in qualifying at the track and was the defending pole winner last fall.
In his final short track start, Jeff Gordon will roll off from the fifth starting position. Gordon is historically great at Martinsville as he is an eight-time winner at the famed speedway and has a career average finishing position of 6.89.
The Eliminator Round sets up well for Gordon as if it wasn’t for a tangle with Brad Keselowski last year at Texas, Gordon would have advanced to the championship race in Homestead. However, if Gordon is to win a race in the remaining four, this would be the one that stands out.
After narrowly advancing into the final eight, Kyle Busch will begin Sunday in the sixth starting spot. Busch believes that if he could get through the first two rounds of the Chase that this round was almost an automatic pass to Homestead. He will need to pick up his on-track performance in order to advance to Homestead, but will have a good starting position and pit stall at Martinsville.
Other Chase drivers include, Keselowski lining up 11th, Kevin Harvick 12th, Carl Edwards 14th and Kurt Busch 15th.
It took Edwards two runs to just get into the second round of qualifying where he ran third. But, in the second round he had put too many laps on his tires and could only combat for a 14th-place effort.
“It was the first run,” Edwards said of what hurt him in his qualifying efforts. “If I would of just been a hair faster we wouldn’t of had to re-run. We got behind on tires, and that’s what really set us behind. We can do well from 14th, we can win from there.”
Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. respectively each had weak qualifying efforts. Johnson is an eight-time winner at Martinsville, but has really struggled in the Chase. His last win at the short track was back in the spring of 2013, and the past two races the No. 48 has finished outside of the top-30. Earnhardt on the other hand is the defending winner of this race and would love to put an exclamation point on the disappointing second-place finish in Talladega.
In Round One of qualifying Kasey Kahne went for a little bit of a ride. With 6:18 to go in the session the No. 5 car wheel-hopped getting into Turn One and spun into the fence. The end result is that the Hendrick Motorsports team will have to go to a backup car and start in the back on Sunday.
“I ruined a really good car,” Kahne said. “First two laps felt okay, but I felt that I needed more speed so I held it out too late. It broke, and I lifted off of the throttle, like everything at once. It wheel-hopped it and it’s totally screwed up.”
This will be a pivotal race in the Eliminator Round and could be a real wild card in determining on who advances into the championship race at Homestead in three weeks.