Jimmie Johnson will lead the field to green as he won his first pole of 2015 at Phoenix on Friday. Johnson had not won a pole in the last 58 Cup races, dating back to Charlotte in May of 2014. Coming off of a victory in Texas, the No. 48 is ending the season on a hot streak.
Though he has five wins on the season, Johnson has only won once since the end of May. If he isn’t in the hunt for the championship, he wants to spoil it for all of the teams who are remaining in the Chase.
“We didn’t have the summer that we wanted, but these guys have been working so hard on the No. 48 team,” Johnson said. “I’m very happy to see the progress and the direction things are going. It’s been a little bit everywhere and if we keep doing that, we’ll close the season out the way we want to.”
Johnson stated that the new reconfiguration of the one-mile flat track has been very tough on him. Although on Friday, Johnson was the quickest in opening practice and set a new track record in his qualifying lap at 25.147 seconds.
Kurt Busch was in the top three in all three rounds of qualifying, and was the quickest in round two. However, he came up one position short in a race that the No. 41 team needs to win in order to advance to race for the championship in Homestead.
“You always want to get the pole, it’s a feather in the team’s hat to wear all weekend,” Busch said of being so close to winning his fourth pole of 2015. “For us to be outside pole in the Haas Automation Chevy it means a lot of all the hard work that’s gone into the car and the car showed a lot of speed in race-trim as well.”
It was an unusual third-place qualifying effort for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt has publicly stated that he is a poor qualifier, but in all three rounds his car was steady. He is looking for his first win at Phoenix since 2004.
Carl Edwards is coming into one of his favorite race tracks needing to make up seven points on the cutoff in order to advance to Homestead. On Friday, the No. 19 team had a fourth-place qualifying effort and is looking for his third career win in the Arizona desert.
The current cutoff driver is the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. In a track where Truex has more last-place(2), then top-five finishes(1), the No. 78 team is hoping that a test last month will help them improve on Truex’s career statistics in Phoenix. Truex has been the dark horse all season long, and is looking for a Cinderella ending to advance to race for his first career championship.
“We adjusted quite a bit,” Truex said of his qualifying effort after being just quick enough to advance into round two. “The thing was we knew that we were going to be off that first run just because our car for whatever reason was really bad on stickers. It was like that in practice. After that, the second and third run it was really good.”
Truex believes that his car is better during race runs and expects to be better than fifth on Sunday.
Seven-time Phoenix winner, Kevin Harvick will start eighth on Sunday. Harvick has won all three Phoenix races since joining Stewart-Haas Racing and won in the fall of 2013 behind the No. 29 car. He is the heavy favorite for the 312-lap event and is looking to punch his ticket to Homestead and compete for his second-consecutive championship.
After missing the spring race in Phoenix, Kyle Busch was 10th fastest in qualifying on Friday. The former winner in the desert is looking to clinch a spot to race for his first championship and heading into Sunday he is 11 points ahead of fifth-place.
“We need to be better than 10th,” Busch said. “I’m not so sure that 10th is going to get it done for us. We unloaded really good, better than we have in the past. I feel like as a company we unloaded better. That’s thanks to Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 team for coming out here and giving us a good test. We need to get it where I can run probably seventh or better.”
The only driver that is worry-free this weekend is Jeff Gordon. After being fastest in the first round of qualifying, the No. 24 team faltered to 11th on the speed chart in round three. After Phoenix renamed the track Jeff Gordon Raceway this weekend, Gordon will look to be first at the checkers.
“We’re just trying to get ourselves ready to go battle it out in Homestead, in order to do that we’ve got to be fierce, and aggressive and push hard,” Gordon said of this weekend. “I thought we made gains from practice. It was a solid day for us. We’re just approaching it to go out and win.”
The only Chase drivers to qualify outside of the top 12, was the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. The No. 22 will start from 14th, after the No. 2 will begin Sunday from the 18th position.
Both of these drivers are in “must win” situations in order to advance to Homestead. After sweeping the Contender Round, Logano has not had a good Eliminator Round. After being involved in the incident with Matt Kenseth in Martinsville and the cut tire at Texas, Logano is in a huge hole and the only thing he can do is win at a track that he’s never won at before. Mathematically, Keselowski can still point himself in, but would need an absolute prayer and it’s unrealistic. The No. 2 team’s best shot to advance was last weekend in Texas when they lead 312 laps, but finished second to Johnson.
Both teams were also outside of the top 10 in practice and will need to make adjustments to have race winning cars.
“I wish we could have run a little faster,” Logano said. “We were close, just a little over a hundredth would have put us in the next round. We still need to find quite a bit more speed to go faster. We just didn’t go fast enough.”
If Sunday’s race at Phoenix is anything like last year’s cutoff race it will come down to the last lap in who advances to Homestead.