FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Austin Dillon won the pole for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Fontana on Friday, claiming the spot for the first time this season at a top speed of 188.482 mph.
Dillon turned a lap in 38.2 seconds flat in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, edging Kevin Harvick by .031 seconds.
Dillon’s only previous pole in 90 career races was at the Daytona 500 in 2014 at the start of his first full Sprint Cup season. Childress’ grandson feels much more ready to build on his second pole with his first victory.
“This means the world to me,” Dillon said. “It’s a drivers’ track at Fontana, and you really can study and find different lines and move around and find speed, and it makes our whole team feel really good going into Sunday. It feels like a career day for me to win a pole at somewhere other than Daytona.”
Dillon was also fastest in practice, putting him in an auspicious position for a breakthrough in Sunday’s race. He has three top-10 finishes and an 11th so far this season, but has never finished a race higher than seventh in his Sprint Cup career.
“When you get that first win behind you, everything just starts coming easier for you,'” said Dillon, a race winner in the Xfinity Series and in trucks. “Guys respect you. They know when you’re coming. They know that you’re there. So we’ve got to break through that wall. We broke through a wall today by getting a pole, so we’ve got a few more barriers we need to break down, and then I feel like we’ll be one of the elite teams in NASCAR.”
Dillon will be the fourth different pole-sitter in five races during this wide-open NASCAR season. Harvick, the California native and 2011 Fontana champion, will start on the front row for the first time this season.
Dillon didn’t lead either of the first two rounds of qualifying, keeping his tires fresh for a big finish. Denny Hamlin set the track record on the way to third place, with Ryan Newman fourth and Carl Edwards in fifth.
The famously well-aged asphalt at this venerable 2-mile oval is a favorite of drivers for its tests of skill and strategy, but it also wears out tires quickly. While the track speed record was repeatedly surpassed in the opening laps of the first two rounds, most drivers couldn’t improve on their early times.
“After the first run, I tried to save a little bit, but I didn’t want to save that much,” Dillon said. “Just focused on running that wall, because that’s where the race is going to be at, I think.”
A swarm of bees forced track officials to abandon the flag stand before qualifying. With a few straggler bees still remaining after most were removed with a non-lethal spray, the starter instead waved the green flag from an elevated platform on the fan side of the fence.
Only a few bees were left by the time racers started qualifying, but nobody was interested in waving a flag in front of them. Fontana officials don’t expect the bees to affect the rest of the weekend.
Hamlin finished with the new track record from his second-round lap of 38.194 seconds, hitting 188.57 mph. Multiple racers broke Kyle Busch’s 2005 track speed record in qualifying after doing the same in practice, showing the real effects of NASCAR’s new low-downforce package.
Kasey Kahne advanced through the first two rounds, but didn’t complete a lap before time expired in the final round, forcing him to start 12th on Sunday.