Carl Edwards will be on the pole for the Brickyard 400, where passing could be at a premium Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Edwards turned a lap at 183.484 mph Saturday to move to the top starting spot. But he then had to see whether two-time race winner and Indiana native Tony Stewart would bump him from the pole.
Stewart was fastest in the first round of qualifying and drew a rousing ovation from the hometown crowd. He was the last driver on the track in the second round of qualifying, and Edwards watched from pit road as Stewart circled the track. The three-time NASCAR champion had to get off the gas in the final turn and wound up fourth.
“Tony had me nervous,” said Edwards, who put his Toyota on the pole for the second consecutive week. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver also won the pole last weekend at New Hampshire, where teammate Kyle Busch won for the third time in four races.
JGR last week had three drivers in the top seven, and had four of the top five at Kentucky two weeks ago.
Stewart is having the worst season of his career, and returned to his favorite race track with just one top-10 finish all season. He admitted last month that his confidence is shattered, but said finding speed Saturday gave him a boost.
“That’s exactly what I needed,” he said. “I’m excited about being in the top two rows right now. I’m definitely happier about that than being mid-pack right now.”
But he cautioned it might not translate into a strong run Sunday.
“I could go and be a natural disaster tomorrow, so it could all be for nothing,” Stewart said. “But it’s the way you want to start the weekend, for sure, is to have two good runs in qualifying and have a decent starting spot. That’s definitely what we were looking for.”
Joey Logano, who along with Brad Keselowski is trying to give Roger Penske his first NASCAR win at Indy, qualified second. He went 183.139 mph in his Ford.
David Ragan was third in a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing and followed by Stewart and Kyle Larson in a pair of Chevrolets. Stewart teammate Kevin Harvick was sixth and followed by MWR’s Clint Bowyer.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was eighth in the highest-qualifying Hendrick Motorsports car, and he was followed by Busch, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard and Jimmie Johnson.
Chevrolet has won the last 12 Brickyards, and 16 of 21 in all. The manufacturer also won the Indianapolis 500 in May with Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya.
“Hopefully we took a little wind out of their sails,” Ford driver Logano said of Chevrolet. “It is no secret they have been fast here in the past. There are a lot of good teams that are driving those cars. I like our chances. I like what Penske has done with Ford and I think we have a great shot.
“We have extra incentive with Roger here this weekend and he showed us how bad he wants this win when we come here to Indy.”
Ryan Newman had his time disallowed by NASCAR because he did not have a right-side window net in his car when he made his qualifying attempt. He’ll start last in the 43-car field.
Jeff Gordon, the defending race winner and a five-time winner at Indy, will start 19th in his final Brickyard 400. Gordon is retiring at the end of the season and the four-time NASCAR champion was feted Thursday in nearby Pittsboro, where he attended high school and pursued his racing career.
“The thing I’m so disappointed in right now is being that far back, it’s going to be a real handful through the corners,” said Gordon. “This team is so good, and our race car has proven to be good. Just because we’re qualifying further back than we want doesn’t mean that we can’t get it done.”
NASCAR is trying a new rules package for Sunday’s race in an effort to improve the competition at a track where it is notoriously difficult to pass.
NASCAR used a track-specific package at Kentucky and will use one Sunday, and again at Michigan and Darlington. The goal is to improve the on-track product, and drivers were thrilled with the low-downforce package at Kentucky.
But the Indianapolis package features higher drag and drivers aren’t convinced it will improve the racing. Unlike the Indianapolis 500, which is typically a breathtaking race with dramatic passes, the heavier stock cars have never been a good fit at the Brickyard and the NASCAR race has rarely been among the best of the season.
Last year’s Brickyard 400, won for a record fifth time by Gordon, featured just 15 lead changes at the start/finish line — a number that NASCAR would like to see go up. The five-year average for green-flag passes for the lead is 16, and the margin of victory is a whopping 2.371 seconds.