AVONDALE, Ariz. – AJ Allmendinger led the charge of four former open-wheelers sweeping the first two rows for Saturday's Subway Fresh Fit 600.
Allmendinger's lap of 134.675 mph claimed the first pole for Ford at Phoenix International Raceway since Carl Edwards in 2007. But for Allmendinger, knocking his Red Bull replacement Scott Speed off the top qualifying spot made winning his first pole in the Sprint Cup Series even sweeter.
"I didn't think about it at all," Allmendinger said with a smirk. "I am not going to lie. I told Scott after qualifying that I was either going to run a 26.70 (second lap) or a 29.0. I didn't know which one, because I was going to drive it down in there and hopefully it stuck.
"Scott is a great qualifier. He has been like that ever since he got there. Those Red Bull guys always give good cars for qualifying. Anybody that has been let go, however, you know what it is like to go out there and beat your old team."
After major changes to his car in practice, Speed tied a career-best second-place starting effort after running 34th in final practice earlier in the day. His Red Bull Toyota was one of four Camrys among the top eight qualifiers.
Despite his Formula One background, which Speed said makes the transition easier to high-frequency braking tracks such as Phoenix, he doesn't feel the experience contributed to his posting a front-row time. But after sporting black hair with blue tips, then finishing outside of the top 30 at Bristol and Martinsville, Speed was looking for any way to change the course of his results.
"Things are starting off this weekend a little bit better than the last two," Speed said.
"I had to shave all the black hair because that seemed to be bad luck. I also named our car. Her name is Rattlesnake. I think it's kind of mean and sounds fast. We're in Phoenix, so it fits. I don't know which one of those has changed our luck around, but we'll continue doing all of them."
Former IndyCar champ Sam Hornish posted the third-fastest lap, in a Penske Racing Dodge. Hornish made his NASCAR Cup series debut here in November 2007 and still considers Phoenix his favorite track. During his Indy days, Hornish scored two wins in six starts on the 1-miler. Friday's third-place qualifying effort was Hornish's best since moving to NASCAR.
Marcos Ambrose, in the No. 47 Toyota, took the fourth spot.
Hornish said: "This track is different than any other place that we run at, because it's a compromise between what you're going to do in (turns) 1 and 2 and what you're going to do in 3 and 4. At some point, you have to give up in one of the two and try and figure where your car is best at and kind of subsidize the other end a little bit."
For Allmendinger, who is in contract year but has yet to have his option picked up by Richard Petty Motorsports, there's no time like the present to audition for possible new rides. Despite the tenuous transition from the team's previously spacious digs to cramped confines on the Roush Fenway campus, Allmendinger said the team is "getting better each weekend".
But the process has been difficult. He is 26th in the point standings and has scored just one top 10 - sixth at Atlanta.
"(Crew chief) Mike Shiplett and I feel like we are working really well together," Allmendinger said. "We know where our strengths and our weaknesses are. It is difficult to be 26th in the points, because I feel we are better than that. We have to go out there and be consistent, because I know we are a solid top 15 team, but we can be a solid top 10 team.
"It is exciting to get that first pole. It is a small victory, but it means so much to this race team and me. In this sport, it is all about confidence. To know we have a good car and to go out there and back it up in qualifying is great."
Practice for Saturday's race was marred by spins from some of the best in the Sprint Cup Series.
Champions Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, along with Kyle Busch and Ambrose all went for wild rides at Phoenix International Raceway. Coming off Turns 2 and 4 seemed particularly treacherous.
Stewart cited driver error on the spin.
"In our situation, I just pushed too hard and got it loose," said Stewart, who qualified 11th with a lap of 133.215 mph. "When I got it out, I couldn't get it back; it was just kind of a slow, lazy spin. I couldn't get it corrected fast enough to get it back underneath me. I just lost it the rest of the way."
Reports of right front tires chattering were frequent during practice. One crew chief went as far as saying the current tire didn't resemble last year's characteristics at all and predicts spins will be prevalent on Saturday night, particularly on long runs.
Kurt Busch wasn't immune to tire chattering either, particularly when the car was tight or when he ran on the low groove of the track. Busch said it's up to the teams to monitor the and feedback to manufacturer Goodyear.
Brian Vickers, who is 12th in the point standings and qualified 21st, said though the track contributed to the instability of the cars, it's time for Goodyear to devise a better combination for the track.
"The track is definitely slick, it's wore out, it's getting older (but) it wasn't that hot," Vickers said. "I want to make a better judgment when we get into the race, but right now I'd say it's the tire. I hate to even say that because Goodyear has done a phenomenal job this whole season, and I really want to point that out. ...
"I think we've had great tires this year. This is not one of them. This is not a good tire. It's really hard, slick, slippery, slides around, chatters front and rear - it's a handful, it really is. ... The good news is I'm very optimistic that if we did a tire test here, they could fix it. Unfortunately, for this weekend it is what it is."