FONTANA, Calif. — Although Matt Kenseth thinks track position is less important on Fontana’s well-aged asphalt than on other NASCAR ovals, he is still excited to start up front Sunday.
Kenseth won the pole Friday, edging Brad Keselowski in another knockout qualifying session highlighted by now-familiar faces.
Kenseth won his first pole of the season, turning a lap in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at 187.315 mph. He beat Keselowski’s 187.105 to earn the 12th pole of his NASCAR career.
“This is probably one of the best tracks we go to as far as passing, with all the different lanes,” Kenseth said. “Unless you get stuck on the top, there’s a lot of options here. This place is really wide. It’s very challenging as a driver, but very fun, as well, because you can look around and if your car is running a certain way, you can find a groove that will help your car and move around a lot.”
The drivers emerged from the fourth edition of NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying format — and the first on a 2-mile oval — with more praise for the fan-friendly style. The 43-car field was trimmed to 24 for the 10-minute second round, followed by a five-minute final round for the top 12 cars.
Kenseth and his team weren’t the swiftest to figure out the new qualifying format, but their speed overcame any problems. Kenseth finished second in the second round of qualifying before leading the final session.
Kenseth has won three times at Fontana, most recently in 2009, but had never won the pole in 21 previous races.
“We unloaded and had some really good speed,” Kenseth said. “We worked on race trim a little bit. Wasn’t driving quite like we hoped, but we did have some good speed, and that translated to qualifying trim.”
Keselowski has started up front in all four races under the new qualifying format, winning the pole at Phoenix and finishing second three times. His Penske Ford teammate, Joey Logano, won the pole at Las Vegas and came in fourth last week at Bristol before finishing seventh at Fontana.
Keselowski doesn’t claim any special expertise about the format, even after improving his time in each round at Fontana. He said the first few cars on the Fontana track had a distinct advantage because the asphalt cools off between runs.
“This knockout format has been really good for my team,” Keselowski said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I don’t feel like a very good qualifier. We’ve got a lot of great momentum going, and we’ve just got to keep it going.”
Fontana’s weathered track hasn’t been changed much for 17 consecutive years, and most drivers love its degradation, which is tough on tires and friendly to gifted drivers hoping to pass. Once known for boring races, its reputation seemingly has improved with each passing year of seasoning on the track.
“I think it’s awesome, I really do,” Johnson said of the combination of the new qualifying rules and the old track.
“This track has a high wear factor for the tires, and I was concerned that if you had a bad lap, you couldn’t go out and improve, but I think to see a couple of cars do that from the first session is nice.”
Jimmie Johnson doesn’t believe his Hendrick Motorsports team was to blame for his tire coming apart at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Johnson was running second early in Sunday’s race when he was forced to pit with a right front tire problem on the No. 48 Chevrolet. The unplanned stop dropped him several laps off the pace and he never recovered, finishing 19th.
When crew chief Chad Knaus inspected the tire, he saw the tread had fallen off, and sarcastically radioed Johnson: “I’m sure it’s something we did. I’m sure it’s our fault.”
Goodyear officials said during the rain delay the No. 48 crew didn’t change right-side tires during the first pit stop, and wear caused the tire to fail.
Johnson said Friday he disagreed with Goodyear’s assessment, even after meeting with officials from NASCAR’s exclusive tire provider.
“From a team standpoint, we’re still very adamant that the wear on the tire was not the issue,” the six-time champion said.
Johnson said Knaus’ sarcasm on the radio was the crew chief foreshadowing Goodyear’s expected explanation.
“If you look at how things transpired … when Goodyear had a chance to respond it was our fault, that is what Chad was preparing us for — that of course it was going to be our fault,” Johnson said. “I went in the truck and sat down and talked with (Goodyear tire developer) Rick Campbell, and I get along with Rick great, and we had a great conversation about the wear on the tire and what potentially could have happened.
“A lot of guys had left-front wear and issues with the left-front and some stuff going on there. We are very confident … it wasn’t worn out.”