FONTANA, Calif — Clint Bowyer went 12 years between Busch Pole Awards. Last September, Bowyer earned his first NASCAR Cup Series pole since 2007 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. On Saturday, Bowyer captured his second pole over the last 11 years, both coming in the last 13 tries in his No. 14 Ford.
Bowyer, circled the Auto Club Speedway with a speed of 179.614 en route to the Busch Pole Award for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET/FOX/MRN). This was also just Bowyer’s second top five starting spot in his last 11 starts around the 2-mile track.
Jimmie Johnson, who is making his 26th and final start at his home track, was also the final qualifier of the session as he was only .007-seconds off Bowyer’s speed in earning the second starting spot – his fifth career front row starting spot on the southern California race track. Johnson, qualified his No. 48 Chevrolet with a speed of 179.582 mph, good enough for his second top six starting spot in three races this season and first top five starting spot in Fontana since 2014 (3rd).
Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate of Alex Bowman (179.359 mph) will roll off third in his No. 88 Chevrolet. Bowyer, was quickest in both practice sessions on Friday and is everyone’s pick to win Sunday’s race. Bowman, has never started in the top 20 in four prior Fontana starts before but does have two top three starting spots in three tries this season.
Kurt Busch gives Chevy three cars in the top four as he qualified fourth in his No. 1 Chevrolet (178.958 mph). Busch now has two top five starting spots in his last 13 Fontana starts
Kevin Harvick (178.882 mph) rounded out the top five in qualifying in his No. 4 Ford.
Stewart-Haas Racing Cars Show Speed
SHR didn’t have much speed in practice on Friday. Other than Bowyer being sixth in final practice, they were 19-20-21-22 and 6-13-18-20 in both respective session. In qualifying, they turned the wick up in earning three of the top six starting positions.
Bowyer, earned his second pole in his last 13 tries. He had none in his previous 11 years of racing. Harvick, will start fifth while Aric Almirola rolls off sixth. Cole Custer will start 18th.
It has been a big struggle for the Toyota teams in qualifying this season. At Daytona, they started 14-15-17-21-28. A week later in Vegas, qualifying was rained out but three of the cars had to start from the rear due to inspection issues.
On Saturday in Fontana, they struggled. The top 8 Rows for Sunday’s race will feature all Ford’s and Chevy’s. The best Toyota driver was Kyle Busch in 17th. He’s the only Toyota driver to even qualify in the top 20 at that.
Rookie Christopher Bell will start 22nd while Denny Hamlin (28th), Erik Jones (29th) and Daniel Suarez (31st) all join him in the back half of the field. Martin Truex Jr. failed inspection three times, so he now starts last (38th) after not being able to qualify.
Toyota has won this race two years in-a-row but right now, that streak looks to be coming to an end.
Rookies Starting Together
The top rookie qualifier on Saturday was Cole Custer as he will start 18th. Custer though, has some company near him via Sunoco Rookie of the Year challengers.
Between 18th-23rd, four of the six starting spots were taken by rookies. Tyler Reddick (19th), Bell (22nd) and John Hunter Nemechek (23rd) are all right there. Factor in second year driver Ryan Preece (20th) and third year driver William Byron (21st) and you get some of NASCAR’s bright future in Rows 9-12.
Starting Position Matters
This race has seen very few cautions lately, so long run speed is more crucial than short run pace. But, what if I told you starting position matters more than you think. The 2018 race saw the top three finishers come from the top three starting spots. Last year’s race saw four of the top five finishers come from a top six starting position.
The worst starting spot of an eventual race winner over the last three years at Fontana has been fourth. Two of the last three have actually came from the pole too. Furthermore, four of the last five Auto Club 400 race winners have started eighth or better.
That’s great news for three of the Stewart-Haas Racing drivers, half of the Hendrick Motorsports camp, to go along with Penske, Ganassi and Front Row Motorsports.
Auto Club 400 Starting Lineup
Row 1: Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson
Row 2: Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch
Row 3: Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola
Row 4: Joey Logano, Michael McDowell
Row 5: Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 6: Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 7: Chase Elliott, Darrell Wallace Jr.
Row 8: Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney
Row 9: Kyle Busch, Cole Custer R
Row 10: Tyler Reddick R, Ryan Preece
Row 11: William Byron, Christopher Bell R
Row 12: John Hunter Nemechek R, Ty Dillon
Row 13: Austin Dillon, Corey LaJoie
Row 14: Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin
Row 15: Erik Jones, JJ Yeley
Row 16: Daniel Suarez, Brennan Poole R
Row 17: Reed Sorenson, Joey Gase
Row 18: Quin Houff R, Garrett Smithley
Row 19: Timmy Hill, Martin Truex Jr.