Talladega, Ala. — Martin Truex Jr. showed up at Talladega Superspeedway determined to be at the front of the field and in control of his chances in NASCAR’s playoffs.
A pole-winning run Saturday put him at the top of the field for the critical elimination race.
Truex turned a lap of 193.423 mph to earn the top starting spot Sunday. The run came after NASCAR confiscated bolts from his Toyota, but Truex said he was not worried about ramifications to his Furniture Row Racing team.
“The jack bolt issue is really not a big issue,” Truex said. “They just took the left front, so it’s not a big issue. It was a parts manufacturing issue, no big deal at all.”
Winner of two races in the first round of the Chase, Truex is winless in round two but above the cutoff point. Four drivers will be cut from the field on Sunday.
“All we have to do is make it through to the next one,” he said. “We’ve got some good tracks coming up for us and (Sunday) is going to be a tough race. A lot is going to happen, but we just have to hope for the best and do the best job we can do.
“I feel good about my car and it’s got a lot of speed in it, obviously.”
The inspection issue with Truex provided a little early drama on qualifying day, as there was some speculation the team could face a penalty. NASCAR typically issues penalties in the middle of the week, and a point deduction could in theory knock Truex out of the Chase.
However, NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said a points penalty is unlikely, and that Truex had no competitive advantage. The bolts taken could have been considered a safety issue, though.
“I would say it would be unlikely but it has to go through our process,” he said. “We don’t typically do that on a weekend. Because it is the playoffs, everyone has a heightened sense of everything. This is no different than things we have done all year, and we will treat this one like we do all year long.”
Miller was unsure if NASCAR would accelerate its review process to determine if a penalty will be issued before the race.
“We don’t have any precedent for doing that,” Miller said. “We will be circling up and trying to figure out the best way to proceed from this moment forward until (Sunday’s) race.”
Brad Keselowski, in nearly a must-win situation on Sunday, qualified second. He won the knockout race in 2014 to stave off elimination, and said his best starting position at Talladega bodes well for him.
“I feel like qualifying well is certainly a very strong omen for Talladega and Daytona,” the Rochester Hills native said. “I think all of the races I’ve won here, we’ve had good starts and the races that we haven’t won or been super-competitive we usually don’t have any speed in qualifying, so it’s certainly a confidence-builder.
“It’s not a guarantee by any means, but a confidence-builder that you carry into this weekend and carry into (the) race.”
Keselowski won at Talladega in May and at Daytona in July.
Matt Kenseth qualified third and was followed by Chase Elliott, who is also in a must-win situation on Sunday.
Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were fifth and sixth and Roush-Fenway Racing put three of its cars into the final round of qualifying as Trevor Bayne was 11th.
Rounding out the top 12 were Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, Paul Menard and Reed Sorenson (12th). It was a huge drop-off for Sorenson, who was the fastest car in the first round of qualifying.
Hamlin is also facing a must-win situation, and said he prefers that to points racing all day at Talladega.
“I’m actually trying to lead every lap,” he said. “That’s all I can do is try to go out there and lead every single lap possible and put ourselves in position at the end. Definitely want to be in the lead if we get down to a shootout and try to defend from there, so we’ve got our work cut out for us, but it’s nothing we haven’t done before.”
Before the first-round runs, NASCAR made the Joe Gibbs Racing teams of Hamlin, Kenseth and Kyle Busch adjust the top of their left-rear quarter panels. The teams were required to go back through inspection and Miller said the body of the cars had been manipulated.
“It doesn’t have to be big to be an infraction,” he said. “It just has to be fair for everybody and that’s what we strive to do.”
Truex, runner-up to Hamlin in the Daytona 500, is one of the many drivers who doesn’t plan to fade to the back of the field on Sunday in an effort to avoid potential accidents. He’s said all weekend he feels more in control of his race if he’s near the front, and the pole position puts him right where he wants to be.
“The strategy is to stay there, but the problem is that it’s pretty hard to do,” he said. “It’s definitely the place to be to start the race. This is obviously a big race with a lot on the line.”
Enfinger gets first NASCAR win — in Trucks
Grant Enfinger grabbed his first career NASCAR victory — at his home track, no less — by holding off the pack to win the Truck Series race at Talladega.
Enfinger, from Fairhope, used a plan with his GMS Racing teammates to move to the front and led a race-high 45 laps to secure the win. He got a push from teammate Ben Kennedy on a late restart and held off a last-lap challenge by teammate Spencer Gallagher.
Gallagher finished second, followed by Timothy Peters, Rico Abreu and Kennedy.
The victory was Enfinger’s first in 13 career starts in the series, and comes as his future in racing is filled with uncertainty.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Enfinger. “It’s my home track. It’s just so special. We came here as fans, that’s how this whole thing started. It hasn’t sunk in yet, it won’t for a while.”
Enfinger planned to spend Saturday night camping in an RV armada seven strong with the same friends and family he’s been coming to Talladega with most of his life. Worrying about his future could wait.
Talladega was an elimination race in the inaugural Chase playoffs, and Daniel Hemric and John Hunter Nemechek were both knocked out as the field was trimmed from eight drivers to six.
Advancing to the next round were Kennedy, Matt Crafton, Peters, Johnny Sauter and Christopher Bell.
Kennedy and Sauter both drive for GMS Racing, which made Saturday a banner day for the organization.
Nemchek’s title hopes ended just 13 laps into the race when his engine expired. Hemric was in three separate incidents Saturday, including a 14-truck accident that badly damaged his Ford.
Hemric finished 11th and missed advancing in the Chase by 13 points.
Hamilton takes Grand Prix pole
Lewis Hamilton needs a late-season charge to catch Nico Rosberg for the Formula One championship. He can start Sunday from the pole position at the U.S. Grand Prix at Austin, Texas.
Hamilton outgunned his Mercedes rival and teammate on the last lap to grab his first pole position at the Circuit of the Americas, where he’s won three times starting from second.
“I feel amazing,” Hamilton said. “I could hear the crowd cheering.”
Hamilton has been a Texas favorite with his three wins in four years and he returned this year facing a 33-point deficit behind Rosberg in the title chase. His fastest lap of 1 minute, 34.999 seconds pushed Rosberg to No. 2.
“It was a good lap I did. Annoyed when Lewis crossed the line and beat me,” said Rosberg, who also threw a jab at Hamilton’s season-long troubles getting off the starting line.
“As we’ve seen this year, qualifying isn’t all important,” Rosberg added. “From P2 I still have a great chance for tomorrow.”
Indeed, Hamilton has been bedeviled by poor starts and pole position Sunday could mean little. He’s won only three of the previous eight races this season when he started No. 1.
A good start will be critical Sunday. The first sector at the Circuit of the Americas sends the cars up through a 110-foot elevation and into a hard left turn that sends them back downhill. Rosberg admits he struggles with the turn, where Hamilton got the inside line at the start in 2015 and bumped him wide.
“It’s very technical in terms of braking and positioning. It’s very difficult,” Hamilton said.
A win Sunday would make Rosberg just the fourth driver in Formula One history to get 10 in a single season. And it would push him that much closer to matching the 1982 championship won by his father, Keke Rosberg. He also would be in striking distance of the single-season victories record held by Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel.
Red Bull flirted with the top spots when Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo went 1-2 in the morning practice. But neither car was able to challenge the supremacy of Mercedes once qualifying began.