AVONDALE, Ariz. – Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne were among the 12 drivers to survive the first round of knockout qualifying on Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates earned qualifying spots inside the top 11 as a result. Jeff Gordon posted the 17th-fastest time during the first session of qualifying.
Friday marked the first time that NASCAR has implemented its reformatted qualifying procedure. At tracks similar to Phoenix, there are two qualifying sessions. The top 12 drivers in the opening 30-minute round advance to the final 10-minute shootout. Sunday’s starting lineup is determined based upon where the drivers finish in qualifying.
Race coverage of Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Phoenix is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.
Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet SS
At Phoenix: In 19 Sprint Cup Series starts at Phoenix, Kahne has one win, four top-five finishes and seven top-10s. He has qualified inside the top 10 during the last six races at the one-mile Avondale, Ariz., oval, making his average start 6.0 in these past six events. Most recently at Phoenix in November 2013, Kahne started seventh, led 41 laps and finished second.
Kahne (on the new qualifying format.): “I like the qualifying format. It brings a little more excitement to Friday and adds some drama so I like it as a driver. Basically, it’s an hour program, and you get a few chances to make those laps and get a pole award so that’s great.”
Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Pepsi MAX Chevrolet SS
At Phoenix: Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Pepsi MAX Chevrolet SS, has two wins, three pole positions, 10 top-five finishes and 20 top-10s in 30 Cup starts. He has an 11.5 average finishing position, while his 10.7 average starting position is the best among active Cup drivers at the one-mile oval.
Gordon (on the No. 24 team at Phoenix.): "I feel we have made some great improvements with how competitive we are at Phoenix and a lot of that is just confidence in how far you can push the car. And the grip level has improved – it was like a razor's edge when they first repaved and reconfigured the track. It was difficult to judge where that 'edge' was. The last race here I thought we had a car capable of winning or finishing top three, but we had some difficulty on a late-race restart (and finished 14th). Better restarts are something I'm focusing on this year.”
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet SS
At Phoenix: This weekend, Johnson will make his 22nd NASCAR Sprint Cup start at Phoenix International Raceway. In 21 prior Cup starts, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS has four wins, two pole positions, 14 top-five finishes and 17 top-10s. Johnson ranks first among Cup drivers all-time with 12 wins at NASCAR's one-mile ovals. Specifically at Phoenix, he leads several statistical categories including most wins (tied with four), top-five finishes (14) and laps led (933). Johnson is the only driver to have won three straight races at Phoenix (November 2007, April 2008 and November 2008).
Johnson (on racing at Phoenix.): “With all the rule changes we have had this year, Phoenix is going to be an interesting race. I think everyone will be in the same boat, and it’s going to be somewhat of a crapshoot. We have had some good luck and some bad luck there, so we will always be hoping for the best.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS
At Phoenix: In 23 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts at Phoenix International Raceway, Earnhardt has earned two wins, six top-five finishes and 10 top-10s. He also has led 509 laps at the one-mile track. He scored his two wins there back-to-back, going to Victory Lane in November 2003 and November 2004 when Phoenix hosted one Cup event a season.
Earnhardt (on his focus after winning the Daytona 500.): “From what I’ve noticed when a team, especially one of my teammates where I can really see what is going on behind closed doors. When they get comfortable that they are in the Chase (for the NASCAR Sprint Cup), they really start to experiment or try to find things outside of their comfort zone that can help them during the Chase. We can start thinking about that earlier than most people and that is definitely one area where we can get aggressive. Steve (Letarte, crew chief) can get aggressive to a point on pit strategy, but common sense is going to tell you what the best thing is to do to win the race.