No. 10 in Top 10
TALLADEGA — Danica Patrick qualified seventh for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, by far her best starting position at Talladega.
It also is her best start this season. In addition, it's the first time she has made the top 10 since winning the pole for last year's Daytona 500.
She did it in the new, three-round “Knockout” qualifying format, which narrowed the field from 47 to 24 to 12 cars over rounds of 25, 10 and five minutes.
The final 12 drivers went two minutes and 40 seconds into the final round before moving off of pit road. Patrick said one more lap might have gotten her in position to challenge for the pole.
“It was an experience,” Patrick said. “Just talking to Kevin (Harvick) after it was over with, we weren’t in a bad spot right there at the end, but we needed one more lap. The two of us probably could have maybe gotten a good run that last lap.
“There was just enough coming from the first group to help the second group not be a little bit slower and help us catch him (pole winner Brian Scott). You have just got to be at the back. So it’s quite the standoff.”
Patrick will make her third Talladega start today. Her previous best Talladega qualifying position was 23rd, and her best finish is 33rd — both this past October.
Logano streak ends
Before Saturday, Joey Logano had qualified for every “knockout” qualifying round this season. He qualified No. 16 Saturday, which means he didn’t make the final 12 in the third round.
“It’s not by a good car or not. It’s just by strategy” Logano said. “We put a lot of work and effort into making it through the week to keep that streak alive today. It’s unfortunate.
“We worked the plan perfectly the first session and got up there. All three of us were really in the top five and felt pretty good about that, and then maybe we fell to the back a little too late. We had a good flying lap going and then we caught a group that was three-wide and then somebody else put it four-wide in front of us.”
NASCAR started the new format for this season, effective after the season-opening Daytona 500. Including this weekend, it’s been in force for nine races. The “knockout” goes two rounds for tracks 125 miles or smaller, three rounds for tracks 125 miles or larger.
Enfinger's streak ends
Grant Enfinger’s bid to win an unprecedented fourth straight race to start the ARCA season was in jeopardy early on, but the day was not a total loss.
Enfinger’s pole-sitting and race-leading car picked up a piece of debris on his lower grill 10 laps into the race that caused his water temperature to rise, then suffered a speeding penalty taking the car into the pits. It left him in catch-up mode all day and he finished ninth.
“It was disappointing and definitely on my part,” he said. “I wanted to pull off a win. We’ve had some bad weather this week on the Gulf Coast and a friend of mine isn’t doing too well.
“It is what it is. We had a car that could have won the race and the driver let it slip away today.”
But before the race, however, the 29-year-old Fairhope driver was told by team owner Howard Bixman his car would be committed for the full ARCA season.
With his wins at Daytona, Mobile and Salem, Enfinger was the first driver since Ramo Scott in 1970 to win the first three ARCA races of the year.
When the cars line up to start today’s Aaron’s 499, the front of the line is going to look like a Chevrolet dealership.
Eleven of the 12 cars that made the final round of Saturday’s knockout qualifying were Chevys. The only interloper was Carl Edwards’ No. 99 Ford, which qualified 10th.
“The Childress ones obviously did the best job because all those Childress engines are what’s at the top and it really became a numbers game,” said Jeff Gordon, who qualified 11th. “They just had more in their group than we had in our group. We needed a couple more Hendricks to make it to that final round and we’d been as good as them and then it would have been really interesting.”
Still chasing Chase
Chase Elliott may have finished 19th in Saturday’s Aaron’s 312, but he managed to hold onto his points lead in the Nationwide Series — barely.
Elliott left Talladega Superspeedway with a one-point lead over race winner Elliott Sadler. He holds a three-point lead over third-place Regan Smith.
For Sadler, the 23-point gain he made on the points leader was as big as winning the race.
“Coming into this weekend, mentally with my spotter, we were like, ‘We can’t lose any more points to the championship,’” Sadler said. “You can wreck on Lap 20 and be 40 points out leaving Talladega. It’s such a wild-card race and a lot of things happen out of your control.
“For us to be able to gain points on the people we’re racing makes us feel good because we’ve run pretty good here the last month … and we have a lot of good things happening with our race team. It feels good any time you go to a restrictor plate race and outrun the guys you’re racing for points because any little thing can happen here and really penalize you in the points.”