Brad Keselowski leads Team Penske sweep of front row at Phoenix

At times it was dramatic.

At times it was chaotic.

But, with drivers trying to cool their engines and tires—not to mention fighting for enough room to complete clean laps–Brad Keselowski won the pole for Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in debut of NASCAR’s new group knockout qualifying format in the Sprint Cup Series.

Keselowski won his first Coors Light Pole of the season and the fourth of his career with a track-record lap on Friday at the one-mile speedway. In the 10-minute round that determined the pole, Keselowski completed a lap at 139.384 mph, breaking the record of 139.222 mph set by Jimmie Johnson before last year’s Chase race in November.

Fellow Team Penske driver Joey Logano (139.265 mph) will start on the outside of the front row beside his teammate. Logano was fastest in the opening session that narrowed the number of drivers eligible for the pole from 46 to 12.

Jamie McMurray (138.969 mph) qualified third, followed by Johnson (138.350 mph) and Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. (138.344 mph). Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, rookie Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin completed the top 12.

“It’s a lot more nerve-wracking,” Keselowski said of the new format. “Usually there’s a pretty good rule of thumb: if it’s a lot more nerve-wracking for drivers, it’s a lot more fun for fans and partners and all those things. That’s a good thing.

“I’m more curious (about) the feedback we get from our fans and everybody else, whether or not they liked it, because, at the end of the day, it’s not about whether I like it. It’s about whether they like it. I like it, because it fits my style, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s about what our fans care for, and I’d be interested to see the feedback over time.”

There was drama at the end of the first 30-minute session, as several drivers waited until the closing minutes to show their hands. With just over six minutes left, Kevin Harvick popped into the top 12, only to be knocked back to 13th when both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin cracked the top 12 in the late going.

In an early run under cloud cover, Logano ran the fastest lap of the session at 139.190 mph. Keselowski was second, followed by the Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt.

With the emphasis on cooling the engines at a premium, teams had their drivers circulate around the inside of the track at 30 mph, a strategy that caused some consternation, even though the drivers in that mode were successful in steering clear of cars making hot laps at the same time.

“When you’re going out there and you’re going 100 miles per hour slower, the closing rate is really fast, so it’s kind of scary,” Logano said.

McMurray felt NASCAR should consider allowing teams to cool their engines with generators on pit road, rather than running slowly on the track and risking interference with cars making qualifying runs.

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, said allowing cooling units on pit road might cause the strategic element of the new format to suffer. Pemberton, however, did emphasize the sanctioning body’s continuing dialogue with the race teams.

“It’s important for us to work together with the teams to come up with the right solutions,” Pemberton said.

Notes: Landon Cassill, Josh Wise and Dave Balney failed to qualify for the 43-car field. … The top three qualifiers all drive for teams with IndyCar affiliations. The IndyCar Series uses the knockout format in road course qualifying, and as Keselowski said, team owner Roger Penske “was all over that.”