Austin Dillon claims Fontana pole, as clock wins final qualifying round

Austin Dillon didn’t make it to the Start / Finish line in time to turn a lap in the final session of knockout qualifying at Auto Club Speedway.

And yet the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet won the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at the two-mile track (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)—because no one else made it to the stripe in the final round, either.

In a bizarre money round in Friday’s time trials, all 12 drivers waited too long on pit road before starting their runs, with none wanting to be first in the draft. The cars were exiting Turn 4 when time expired, and that meant a reversion to Round 2, which Dillon led.

Hence, Dillon won the fourth Busch Pole Award of his career, his first since 2016 and his second at Auto Club. In a sense, it was poetic justice that Dillon was the top qualifier for Sunday’s 200-lap race. He was the only driver in either round to break 40 seconds (39.982), and the only driver to top 180 mph (180.081) in either round.

To post that lap in the second round, Dillon and crew chief Danny Stockman adjusted for a strong wind blowing across Turns 3 and 4. Then Dillon hit a perfect position in the draft.

“It was really pushing you in the corner in 3 and 4,” Dillon said. “In the middle of the corner, I had a tight balance most of my day. I couldn’t run wide open. I talked to Stockman through it, kind of telling him where that point was.

“I thought the wind changed going into practice (earlier in the day). I felt like it was coming from Turn 2 to 4. When I got out of the car after practice, it was really shooting right into the middle of 3 and 4. So I went and told him the reason we were tight had to be the wind. We freed up around that, and I changed a little bit of my driving style to accommodate the car… and we ended up on top.”

Kevin Harvick qualified second at 179.386 mph, based on his second-round speed. Aric Almirola (179.082 mph) claimed the third starting spot, followed by Kyle Busch (178.895 mph), who can earn his 200th NASCAR national series victory this weekend with a win in either Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 Xfinity Series race or in Sunday’s Cup event.

As the seconds counted down in the final session, Dillon waited, knowing he had the pole if no one else moved in time. When the clock ticked below 47 seconds (the time it would have taken to get from the end of pit road back to the start/finish line), the pole was his.

“When the 18 (Kyle Busch) made a little bit of a move there, I just rode on his door, because I was going to follow him and just have one car to beat,” Dillon said. “I didn’t have to make it back around. And then the 12 (10th-place qualifier Ryan Blaney) came through the grass—I thought he demolished his car. It looked like he left the ground over there. I don’t know what he did, but it was pretty wild.

“At that point my spotter said, ‘It’s over. You can bring it around here,’ and I knew we had gotten the pole.”

Joey Logano qualified fifth, Denny Hamlin sixth and Ryan Newman seventh. Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Blaney, Jimmie Johnson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. completed the top 12, as Ford drivers accounted for seven of the final-round positions.