Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe claimed the Busch Light pole position in Friday evening’s qualifying session for Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 NASCAR Cup Series regular season finale (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Daytona International Speedway.
Briscoe’s No. 14 SHR Ford just edged 2014 Daytona summer race winner and SHR teammate Aric Almirola in the final qualifying run of the afternoon with a lap of 181.822 mph around the 2.5-mile Daytona high banks – a difference of less than two-tenths of a second between the two. It’s Briscoe’s first pole position of the season and second in his three-year tenure in NASCAR’s premier series.
It certainly comes at a crucial time in the season with one position still to be settled for the 16-driver Playoff field that begins its 10-race run to crown a NASCAR Cup Series champion next week at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway. The outside pole position equaled the Florida-native Almirola’s best qualifying effort of the season – which came this spring at the other superspeedway in Talladega, Ala.
“It’s exciting,’’ Briscoe said. “To be able to win the pole at Daytona is special no matter what car you’re driving. To be able to say I’m leading the field to green in a Cup race at Daytona is a pretty cool thing to be able to say. It’s a testament, honestly, to everybody at Stewart-Haas. It’s no secret, it’s been a rough season for us and to have all four cars in the Top-10 and to lock out the front row is super important for us and a turning point and hopefully one of us can win tomorrow.
“You can start on the pole and be 30th by lap 20 there are so many variables,’’ Briscoe conceded. “But I will say with this new car, track position is more crucial than ever before.
“Being on the pole,’’ he added, “you have a great opportunity from the standpoint of starting position, but you just have to go execute … and that’s what we have to focus on.’’
Wood Brothers Racing’ Harrison Burton, 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Ty Gibbs rounded out the Top-10 – four of the five drivers at the head of the grid needing a victory Saturday night to move into Playoff contention.
Without a new season winner, Wallace could potentially point his way into the title chase. He currently holds a 32-point advantage on the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Gibbs. Of course, a win is his ticket through too.
Equally as compelling a story as those that qualified well were the handful of Playoff hopefuls who will have to start deeper in the field.
Trackhouse Racing driver Daniel Suarez, who is 17th in the standings – just behind Gibbs - qualified 22nd. And seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Most Popular Driver Chase Elliott will roll off 23rd in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Elliott is currently ranked 19th in the Playoff standings – a healthy 101 points back after missing seven races due to a combination of injury and a one-week suspension from NASCAR.
“I still don’t think it matters a whole lot,’’ Elliott said of qualifying at Daytona. “I do think track position matters at some point during the day and we saw that in the [Daytona] 500 here. I crashed there early on, but the part of the race I was in I felt like everybody was stuck. We couldn’t go anywhere. I was looking around and there were times during the race I was like, he’s trying to go forward and can’t.
“I think the more the cars are the same as time has gone on, it’s hard to be different. … then it puts all the emphasis on the little stuff. How fast are your pits stops? How much gas you got in it? How good’s your restart? All the itty-bitty little things become much larger pieces of the puzzle when the cars are just more and more the same, especially when you’re running around here wide open.’’
“There’s still a little bit of a difference,’’ he added. “whether it’s the driver, the car or a combination of both I still think a guy can make himself stand out.’’
Ford dominated the qualifying session with seven cars among the 10 that advanced to the Final Round. NASCAR Xfinity Series’ regular Riley Herbst qualified sixth fastest in the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford. Kyle Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was seventh fastest, followed by the Fords of Penske Racing’s Ryan Blaney and the SHR teammates Ryan Preece and Kevin Harvick.
Among the grid’s Top-10 only, Larson and Blaney have victories. Harvick is the only other driver among that group to have secured his Playoff bid – pointing his way in. The retiring driver of the No. 4 SHR Ford still hasn’t scored a win in his farewell season.
“It would definitely shake up the Playoff field for sure and everybody loves an underdog,’’ Briscoe said of possibly winning from pole Saturday night.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin qualified their Toyotas 13th and 19th, respectively. Truex leads Hamlin by 39-points in a duel for the Regular Season Championship, which gives the champ a 15-point bonus for the Playoff.
Defending Coke Zero 400 race winner, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon will start 21st.