Updated: March 7, 2014, 2:59 PM ET

Turn 4 TV: Junior vs. Harvick?

Keselowski rolls to pole

By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

After weeks of build-up and anticipation, NASCAR finally staged its first elimination-style qualifying session for the Sprint Cup Series.

What resulted was … well, kind of a letdown.

Traffic was never a problem in qualifying for the Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway; there were never more than eight to 10 cars on the track at any given time. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski quickly laid down fast laps during the cloudy opening stages, then sat out the remainder of the initial 30-minute elimination session and watched as nobody could go quicker than their Team Penske Fords.

There wasn't much drama on the bubble, either. Denny Hamlin locked himself into the 12-driver pole shootout with several minutes to spare, though his margin over 13th-placed Kevin Harvick of 0.001 second was about as close as you can get.

The notable aspect of NASCAR's first attempt at anything other than single-car qualifying was the measures teams took trying to keep engines cool. After making an initial run, numerous teams completely removed tape from the car's grille openings and had the driver run a few laps at slow speeds in an effort to maintain safe oil and coolant temperatures.

Ambient temperatures were in the low 80s for qualifying, with cloud cover early in the session giving way to bright sunshine.

"The cooling thing, they need to adjust that," said four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who qualified 17th. "The only thing that's limiting us from making more runs is the temperature of the engine."

Logano's 25.864-second lap in the full-field session was just a hair off the PIR track record Jimmie Johnson set last November. Aside from Keselowski and Hamlin, the other drivers who made the top 12 included Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Johnson, and Daytona 500 winner (and Phoenix practice pacesetter) Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The 10-minute pole shootout produced more excitement, including a track record. Logano did it first with a 25.850 second lap, only to be pushed down to P2 by a pair of laps by his teammate Keselowski good enough for the pole, the best of which stopped the clocks after 25.828 seconds.

With three minutes remaining, only seven drivers had made a qualifying run. But it didn't make any difference because nobody had any answer for the Penske pair.

"It's great to have Team Penske 1-2 for the first time with this qualifying system, and at Phoenix -- the first race track we go to where handling comes into play," Logano said. "You get to show off all that hard work from the offseason for the first time. To come here and start off strong is a big deal for our whole team.

"Obviously a really fast car, and there is some pride to be taken in being the first to win a Sprint Cup pole using this format," added Keselowski. "A testament to my team and how fast a car they gave me. It was just a matter of executing on my end. When they told me the time, I said, 'I'll take it!'"

Not surprisingly, the talking point afterward was the car cooling issue. Jamie McMurray, who qualified third in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, said he wasn't surprised to see the 30 mph cooling laps.

"We talked about it last night at dinner," McMurray said. "I was surprised the way everyone took off right away, I think anticipating trying to get the car cooled down to make another run. If they would let you cool the engine down, you could run full tape.

"I think all the teams would go along with using the cooldown unit on pit lane during qualifying," he added. "Otherwise, people are going to be buying more powerful batteries and fans, and it's going to end up costing everyone extra money."

Rookie Kyle Larson, who impressed by qualifying eighth for Sunday's race, said there is a safety aspect to cars slowing down to cool down that must be considered as well.

"It was a little sketchy for other cars at speed," he said. "I'm sure NASCAR will tweak on it some."

Keselowski is a fan of the new system, and not just because he earned his fourth career Sprint Cup pole.

"It's a lot more nerve-racking, and as a rule of thumb, that usually means it's a lot more fun for our fans and partners," Keselowski said. "I like it because it fits my style, but what the fans think is more important, and I'll be interested to see their feedback over time."



Junior happy with long media tour

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 media tour ended precisely 30 minutes before the first practice session for this weekend's The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

At least, it was supposed to.

Earnhardt hasn't been to his North Carolina home since he took the checkered flag at Daytona on Sunday night. His girlfriend, Amy Reimann, organized a shipment of clean clothes to New York, where most of the NASCAR star's media appearances took place.

Junior probably couldn't wait to get back into the car Friday at PIR. And he picked up performance-wise where he left off at Daytona, posting the only sub-26-second lap at a speed of 138.723 mph to lead the 90-minute practice session.

If he repeats that form in qualifying, he'll earn himself yet another trip to the media center. And he probably won't mind at all.

"Normally, truth be told, drivers complain about being run ragged and taken all over the place to do media," Earnhardt said before practice. "I would have said before the race, 'Man, I hope I win, but I'm not looking forward to that media tour.' But as soon as I crossed the finish line, I was thinking, 'Man, I've got to go on that media tour, and it's going to be fun.' I don't know what flipped the switch, but I was looking forward to everything we had to do this week. It was fun. And it's not a bad problem or a bad distraction to have on a race weekend talking about last week."

Earnhardt said he's looking forward to his first experience with the new NASCAR qualifying format.

"I don't know exactly what [crew chief Steve Letarte's] plan is, but we have a lot of time in between practice and qualifying to sort that out and get an idea of what the rumblings are in the garage," he said. "You know people are talking, and all kinds of information is moving around in that garage to try to capture. We'll see what makes sense."

Joey Logano ran second quick in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford on his very last lap of the 90-minute session, and Kyle Busch made a late improvement to third in the No. 18 Skittles Toyota.

However, optimism was low in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp -- at least with Denny Hamlin, who ran 29th in practice. Matt Kenseth was 17th.

"We're in the have-nots right now," Hamlin said. "With this Chase package, you can afford to throw big changes at it between practice sessions because so much emphasis is placed on winning, and once you win a race, you're in the Chase.

"If we make the first cut in qualifying, we'll go from there," he added. "If you see you're not going to get there [into the fastest 12], you've got to untape it and go to work on your car. We will use as much of that time as we can to log laps."






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