NASCAR's Matt Kenseth knows Auto Club Speedway well, having won three Sprint Cup races at the Fontana track.
But he earned the victories driving for Roush Fenway Racing and is still looking for his first win on the two-mile oval since moving to the Joe Gibbs Racing team last year.
Kenseth took the step toward a fourth win Friday by winning the pole position for Sunday's Auto Club 400 as NASCAR's new knockout-style qualifying format was used at the Fontana speedway for the first time.
"They gave me the car and all I had to do was not mess it up," Kenseth said of how crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the rest of his team prepared his No. 20 Toyota.
"It's a really fun race track, especially when our car is driving good," said Kenseth, 42, whose pole-winning lap was 187.315 mph.
Brad Keselowski, who won two weeks ago in Las Vegas, qualified second in his No. 2 Team Penske Ford with a lap of 187.105 mph.
Jimmie Johnson, who has a record five Cup wins at Auto Club Speedway, qualified third. Kevin Harvick, another former Fontana winner who won earlier this month in Phoenix, was fourth.
Under the new qualifying format for the 43-car field, all the cars qualified in the opening 25-minute session and the 24 fastest advanced to the 10-minute second round. The 12 fastest in that round moved to the final five-minute session.
Among the drivers who failed to reach the final round included Denny Hamlin (who qualified 13th), Kyle Busch (14th) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (15th).
Many of the drivers ran only a single lap in each session because the Fontana track is particularly abrasive and the teams are allowed only one set of tires for qualifying.
Track slashes capacity
Owing to a lack of sellouts, Auto Club Speedway has slashed its grandstand capacity in the last year to 68,000 seats from 92,000, a track spokesman said Friday.
The 24,000-seat reduction reflects the pullback in NASCAR's surging popularity during the mid-2000s, caused in good part by the severe economic recession that started in 2008.
Auto Club Speedway's parent, International Speedway Corp., had told Wall Street analysts last summer that it planned to cut capacity at certain tracks to escape the "quagmire" of too many empty seats.
It did not identify the tracks at the time. But the company's most famous track, Daytona International Speedway, also is undergoing a renovation that will slash its grandstand seating to 101,000 from 146,000.
International Speedway Corp. is controlled by the France family that also owns NASCAR.
At Auto Club Speedway, the grandstands stretch from Turn 4 through the main straightaway and along Turn 1. Most of the removed seats were located at the end of Turn 1, track spokesman David Talley said.
Those seats had gone unsold for the last few NASCAR Sprint Cup races and were covered with a tarp. No seats were removed in Turn 4, he said. In 1997, Auto Club Speedway was host to its first Cup race; and from 2004 through 2010, the track was host to two Cup races a year. But NASCAR removed one race from the track's annual schedule starting in 2011 amid sagging attendance.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun