By JENNA FRYER
The Associated Press
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Martin Truex Jr. was the fastest of the four NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders in qualifying and will start second Sunday in the season finale.
Truex, the regular-season champion, turned a lap of 173.952 mph in the No. 78 Toyota at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday night. Denny Hamlin stole the pole from Truex on the last lap of qualifying. Hamlin went 173.980 mph to take the spot and give Toyota a 1-2 front row.
“That was a bit dramatic,” Truex said, adding that he was a few thousands seconds away from a perfect day.
Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, will start third and Brad Keselowski fifth. Kevin Harvick qualified ninth.
“We outran the other three guys, which is good, but I don’t think it’s a big deal because we’re all pretty tight together,” Truex said. “One spot from where we wanted to be.”
Truex is the only driver among the four challengers without a Cup championship. Truex has led the Cup Series in nearly every measurable category and is a seven-time winner this year.
Truex won’t have team owner Barney Visser in attendance because he is recovering from a heart attack and surgery at home in Colorado.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the 24th-best qualifying effort, but an engine change will drop NASCAR’s favorite son to the rear of the field for his final NASCAR Cup race.
Keselowski said his No. 2 Ford experienced brake issues during practice and qualifying and hoped his Team Penske crew could fix it before the finale.
Harvick saved his No. 4 Ford from disaster when it got loose and he saved it from sliding into the wall.
“It kept turning but the back wanted to go the other way,” Harvick said. “It just ended up messing the whole lap up.”
Harvick is seeking his second Cup championship and is far from the favorite, which he was during his 2014 title run.
That year, Harvick won in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing. This year, he is trying to do it in SHR’s first season with Ford.
Hamlin, who again fell short this year in his bid for his first championship, not only got the pole but could team with Busch to hold off the other three drivers.
“I really don’t care. I want to win. That’s all I care about,” Hamlin said.
Danica Patrick will start 25th in her final race for SHR. She announced Friday she would race the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 next season for an undetermined team and then retire.
Matt Kenseth qualified fourth for JGR in what is expected to be the final NASCAR race for the 2003 Cup champion.
Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Kenseth helped Toyota sweep the top four spots.