RICHMOND, Va. - In need of a playoff spot next week and a place to drive next year, Matt Kenseth stormed to the pole position for Saturday night's Federated Auto parts 400 at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
Kenseth covered the .75-mile distance in 22.055 seconds (122.421 mph) in the final round of Friday's knockout qualifying session to edge Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (122.277 mph) for the top starting spot by .026 seconds.
The Coors Light Pole Award was Kenseth's second of the season - both coming at Richmond - his third at the "D"-shaped short track and 20th of his career.
Winless in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series so far this season, Kenseth is one of three drivers who can secure a berth in the postseason on points.
Kenseth will exit his ride at JGR at the end of the season and thus far has not announced plans for next year. But Friday's pole run was an emphatic statement that the 45-year-old is still quick.
"The third round, it didn't feel as good, but luckily it was fast enough," said Kenseth, who is driving the No. 20 Hurricane Harvey Relief Toyota in the final regular-season race. "We missed the balance a little bit there, but it was fast enough to get the pole...
"I'm hoping for the best. I thought we were at our best this morning (in practice) when the track was the coolest and the cleanest. As it got hotter, we ran worse. So I guess that gives me hope that we'll have speed tomorrow night."
Hamlin's final lap produced a better result than the driver expected when he ran it.
"I thought it would be a little worse than it ended up," said Hamlin, last week's winner at Darlington raceway. "I didn't drive the laps as good as I probably could have and probably gotten the pole. Either way, a good run. We improved every round.
"And, obviously, we're hoping for long green-flag runs. That's typically where I excel at this race track. All in all, a pretty good day."
Kurt Busch qualified third, followed by Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. All three drivers, including Kenseth, who can make the playoff of points advanced to the final round on Friday. Chase Elliott will start ninth and Jamie McMurray 11th.
Two drivers who must win on Saturday to claim a playoff spot also cracked the top 12. Despite missing the first hour of Friday's final practice because of pre-qualifying and pre-race inspection failures last week at Darlington, Erik Jones qualified 10th.
Joey Logano, whose April 30 win at Richmond was encumbered by penalty, grabbed the 12th spot on the grid.
"We just had too much fall-off," said Logano, who was third fastest in the first round. "The first run was almost the fastest car, within a couple hundredths (of a second), and then the next run we were a tenth-and-a-half off, and then next run three-tenths off.
"Too much fall off from run to run. I don't know that I completely understand why, but that's where we will start, so it doesn't much matter now."
Nevertheless, Logano isn't discounting his chances to barge into the playoff with a victory.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "I think we're OK. Our long-run speed looked to be OK. I don't think we are lights-out fast, but I think we're close enough that we can certainly make it interesting on everyone."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 21st for his final start at Richmond in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
--- NASCAR Wire Service ---