Fontana, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - After struggling with NASCAR's new knockout- style of qualifying in the first couple of weeks, Matt Kenseth has figured out the modified format well enough now to earn him the pole for Sunday's 400-mile race at Auto Club Speedway.
Kenseth claimed his 12th career pole in the Sprint Cup Series on Friday when he made a lap around this 2-mile Southern California racetrack at 187.315 mph. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing had qualified 19th at Phoenix and then 29th at Las Vegas before he significantly improved last week with a third-place finish in qualifying at Bristol.
"It was quite unexpected in a way I guess because this knockout qualifying before last weekend has been a struggle for us," Kenseth said of winning the pole at Fontana. "I haven't been doing a very good job, so we really didn't have much of a strategy. All three laps, I just went as hard as I could."
Kenseth became the 16th different driver to win a pole for a Sprint Cup race at this track. He has won a race here three times (2006, '07 and '09), starting no better than 24th in any one of those events.
Brad Keselowski grabbed the outside pole after making his lap in the closing seconds of the third and final qualifying round. Keselowski's lap at 187.105 mph was just 0.043 seconds behind Kenseth.
"We just ran so late in our [final] run because our tires were so hot and we had to wait until the end," Keselowski said. "I didn't want to wait until the end. I think the track was really fast right out the gate. We just couldn't go out there because of our tires. But that's OK. I really didn't expect to be on the front row."
Keselowski has finished either first or second in qualifying since NASCAR began using the new format for its top series three weeks ago at Phoenix. He is also the current points leader.
California-native Jimmie Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, qualified third at his home track. Johnson holds the record for most wins here with five. His most recent victory came in February 2010.
"It was a real consistent session for us," Johnson said. "We did a nice job managing things and managing the balance of the race car. I felt like I got all that my car had on that last session, but I just came up a little short."
Kevin Harvick, also a California-native, took the fourth spot, followed by Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon.
Joey Logano, Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards, who won last Sunday's race at Bristol, and Tony Stewart completed the top-10. Kyle Larson, a rookie in the series this year, and Martin Truex Jr. were 11th and 12th, respectively, in qualifying.
Denny Hamlin, who is Kenseth's teammate at JGR, missed the cut into the final round by 0.043 seconds. Hamlin will start 13th. His other teammate, Kyle Busch, who won this race one year ago, will line up next to him in 14th. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will roll off in 15th.