By Seth Livingstone (NASCAR Wire Service) DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – No one knew what to expect when knockout NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying came to Daytona International Speedway for the first time on Friday.
But no one could have predicted what transpired in a chaotic qualifying session for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400.
David Gilliland, who has finished no better than 20th in 17 starts this season, captured his third career Coors Light Pole (second at Daytona) when rain forced cancellation of the second and third rounds.
The surprises didn’t end with Gilliland capturing the first-ever pole for Front Row Racing in the Love’s Travel Stops Ford.
Joining Gilliland on the first row will be Reed Sorenson, who has been no better than 21st for Tommy Baldwin Racing since finishing 16th in this year’s Daytona 500. Sorenson, winless in 206 career Cup starts, last recorded a top-10 finish in 2010.
Third-fastest qualifier was Landon Cassill, who has yet to have a top-10 finish in 132 career Cup starts and whose best finish this season is an 11th at Talladega.
Also on the second row will be 2000 premier series champion Bobby Labonte, driving the Thunder Coal Chevrolet for Phoenix Construction. Labonte, 50, owns 21 career wins in 23 seasons, but his last victory was in 2003 at Texas.
What does it all mean that some of this season’s top qualifiers, including Brad Keselowski (26th) and Joey Logano (28th) would have been shut out of a second qualifying round if rain had not halted the proceedings? What about Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch, among seven drivers who relied on owner’s points to make the 43-car field?
For one thing, it means that drivers are still figuring out the best ways to handle NASCAR’s new qualifying format on superspeedways, especially when teamwork and drafting partners can be as important as raw speed.
Strategies varied as drivers attempted to find drafting partners while some cars slowed and others sped up on the 2.5-mile track. At times drivers rolled through the pits or paused on pit lane, trying to pick that perfect time to pair with a partner or find open racing room on the track.
“I ain’t never seen anything like it,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who teamed with Jimmie Johnson (fifth) and Jeff Gordon (ninth) to get in a fast lap midway through the session and qualified seventh. Earnhardt said watching the various strategies unfold with rain on the horizon “the funniest thing I ever seen.”
Not every driver found it humorous.
“That was pretty dumb,” said Logano, who had 14 top-10 starts in the season’s first 17 races. “Sometimes (drivers) are lifting, sometimes going. It is very difficult to figure out what is going on there. Before you know it, you are stopped on the race track and asking yourself what you are supposed to do.”
It had already been an eventful week for Gilliland, who lost his wedding ring while swimming in the Atlantic. Moments after he’d won the pole, his 11-year-old daughter joked tweeted that maybe the ring was bad luck.
Gilliland prefers to think that his “Support Our Military” camouflage paint job on his No. 38 Ford, signed by Medal of Honor recipients Friday morning is “the secret to the extra speed in the car.”
“Our strong point is definitely the speedway racing,” said Gilliland, who sat on the pole in 2007 for his first Daytona 500 start. “Some of it’s been circled on our calendar and I feel like we put a lot of emphasis in. The restrictor plate tracks are a great equalizer. I think David Ragan (teammate, qualified eighth) and I both have good enough cars to win, so that’s an exciting feeling – something myself and my teammates don’t have every week.
“Obviously, starting on the pole and having the No. 1 pit stall is going to help. I feel like we have 100 percent as good a chance as anybody to win (Saturday) night.”
But Gilliland, who also earned a berth in the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Unlimited with his pole performance, acknowledges that the current qualifying format at restrictor plate tracks is a “crapshoot.”
“At Talladega, for two weeks in our competition meetings, we said we’re going to do this, do that. We’re going to stick together. We had Eric McClure driving a third car, who had to make the race on speed. David Ragan and I were probably 35th on back and just never could make it happen. It was soooo frustrating.
“This week we said, look, we’re not going to have a plan. We know what we need to do to make a fast lap – position yourself right. But you can’t plan it. You can try to get in a groove and do this or that, but then you have people slowing down because you don’t want other people to make run. You just know what you need to do to try to make a fast lap and try to make it happen.”
Sorenson, driving the Golden Corral Chevrolet, and Cassill, in the Newtown Building Supplies Chevrolet, said the strong starting positions should facilitate their approach on Saturday night.
“It will be good to stay in that first group and keep all that (potential) trouble behind us,” Sorenson said.
“We’d like to run up front the entire race if we can,” said Cassill, who turns 25 on Monday. “We don’t have the reputation of being fast, week in, week out. But, actually we have equipment for this race is as good as anybody’s. We just need to show people how good the car is.”