There’s a thrilling, three-way NASCAR Sprint Cup title fight going on, but you’d never know it by the way the championship protagonists qualified for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Carl Edwards captured the pole for Sunday’s race with a track record lap of 136.389 miles per hour around the 1-mile PIR flat oval, but the big news was that points leader Denny Hamlin, second-place Jimmie Johnson and third-place Kevin Harvick all qualified outside the top 15.
Hamlin, who leads Johnson by 33 points and Hamlin by 59, was just 17th fastest in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. But that was still better than his rivals, as Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was 21st and Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing Chevy was 28th.
Edwards, the 2008 championship runner-up, used a great lap in his No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusion to edge the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford of AJ Allmendinger, who qualified at 136.250 mph. It was the third pole of the season for Edwards and seventh in 228 career Sprint Cup races.
“We’ve come to this race track focused on qualifying, so we can start up front and have a good run,” said Edwards. “It’s not been the year we wanted, obviously, but to look at the points and see that we have a shot to finish fourth, legitimately, based on our performance the next two weeks is what we’re here to do, so it’s a good start for us.”
Allmendinger’s Richard Petty Motorsports Ford team barely made it to the track this week, having been delayed at Texas Motor Speedway while the team scraped together the cash to pay Roush Fenway Racing some of the reported $10 million it is owed for Roush built and serviced cars and engines.
“I’m just proud of everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports,” said Allmendinger. “It’s a tough time for us. ... I think we’re showing that even in the toughest of times, we can go out there and perform.”
Qualifying third was Kurt Busch, who ran 136.240 mph, followed by Greg Biffle, the third Ford driver in the top four. Biffle’s No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford had a fast lap of 135.741 mph.
For Kurt Busch, the Kobalt Tools 500 will be his penultimate race in the No. 2 Miller Lite-sponsored Penske Racing Dodge Charger. Next year, Brad Keselowski will move to that car and Busch will drive Penske’s No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge.
And that had Busch in a melancholy mood Friday at PIR.
“I felt like they were my shoes to wear and representing the Miller Lite brand and the fun that we had off the track and the fun we had on the track, it’s tough to see it go,” said Busch. “We’ve got two more weeks. It would mean the world to me to go and win one of these final two weeks and spray beer all over each other, because if you get gasoline in your eyes in victory lane, it’s going to sting a little bit. Beer isn’t so bad.”
Failing to qualify were Michael McDowell, Joe Nemechek and Jason Leffler.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.