Jamie McMurray bumped all eight of NASCAR’s championship contenders with a surprising pole-winning run Friday at Martinsville Speedway.
McMurray, who did not qualify this year for the Chase for the Sprint Cup title, set a qualifying record with a lap of 99.905 mph to nudge the six championship-eligible drivers who had advanced with him into the final round of qualifying. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver felt he had a shot at the pole based on a strong test session with his team earlier this month.
“We made the car better throughout the test and hit on a couple of things that really had a lot of speed in it, so I was pretty excited about getting here this weekend,” McMurray said. “Our cars have been so quick the past two or three months. This is a great track for me, we had a really good test, and when things are going well, you get excited to come to the track.”
Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth, who are both in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field, qualified second and third.
Non-Chase driver Tony Stewart was fourth, followed by title contenders Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.
It was a terrible qualifying session for Kevin Harvick, who appeared to twice slap the wall and failed to advance out of the first round. He’ll start 33rd on Sunday, worst of all the Chase drivers.
“We just missed it today,” Harvick said in a statement distributed by his team. “We were way too loose. We struggled in practice and just missed it in qualifying. We have to get better (today) and be ready to go on Sunday.”
It was an uncharacteristically poor effort for the Stewart-Haas Racing entry. Harvick has a series-leading eight poles this season and is consistently one of the fastest cars each weekend.
So to start near the back at the .526-mile paperclip puts him in a precarious position for the opening race of the third round of NASCAR’s Chase.
The eight-driver field will be cut in half after three races, with the four remaining drivers scheduled to compete for the Sprint Cup title in the Nov. 16 finale at Homestead. A win in any of the next three earns a driver an automatic berth into the finale, so a fourth driver is guaranteed to make it on consistent finishes.
But at a track as small as Martinsville, the leaders can lap the back of the field quickly and Harvick could be in trouble early.
“I’ve been there and it ain’t no fun,” said Brad Keselowski, who qualified sixth. “But if you have a strong car and you can stay out of the early trouble, it doesn’t seem to be too big of a hurdle.”
Keselowski teammate Logano said Harvick will have to race hard to avoid being lapped by the leader, but will also be stymied by traffic.
“When you’re that far back, the inside lane just keeps checking up a lot into the corners and you can shove the nose in pretty quick there,” Logano said. “The next thing you know, you’re in the back of a car. So I think that will probably be something you’ve got to be aware of, and obviously guys fighting to the bottom and the sense of urgency back there is very high, so you’re not really saving any tires because you’ve got to go.”
Jeff Gordon, the defending race winner, was the next lowest qualifying Chase driver at 13th. He said Harvick will be fine if his car is good and he gets a long green-flag run.
“You have a fast race car and you get good, long green-flag runs, you can drive your way to the front,” Gordon said. “You’ve just got to be real patient. It’s a long race. As good as those guys have been all year long, I feel like they’ll certainly be capable of running up in the front. But it makes it more (of a) challenge.”