By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
FONTANA, Calif. – Austin Dillon delivered a parting shot that turned out to be a called shot.
After taking questions from reporters after Friday’s opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice at Auto Club Speedway, Dillon paused to watch the last minute of Middle Tennessee State’s upset victory over Michigan State in the NCAA basketball tournament.
On his way out the door, Dillon was asked about his prospects for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX) at the two-mile track.
“Ask me tomorrow (after practice),” Dillon said. “But I think we’ve got a shot at the pole today.”
Dillon’s parting comment proved prophetic. In the money round of knockout qualifying, the driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet toured the abrasive track in 38.200 seconds (188.482 mph) to earn the top starting spot for Sunday’s race.
The Coors Light Pole Award was Dillon’s first since he topped qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500 in his 2014 rookie season.
“I’m not (just) a Daytona 500 polesitter now—I got a pole somewhere else,” Dillon said. “And to do it at a driver’s race track like this here at Fontana means a lot to me.
“I’m just proud of this American Ethanol team. We’ve had fast cars all year long, and I knew going into that third session, if I didn’t make mistakes I would have a shot. I just stayed with it off of (Turn) 4. … It worked out for us.”
Dillon edged last week’s Phoenix winner, Kevin Harvick (188.329 mph), by .031 seconds. Denny Hamlin qualified third after leading the second round with a track-record run at (188.511 mph), breaking the mark of 188.245 mph set by current Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch in 2005.
Conserving his equipment for the final run, Dillon adhered to a blueprint devised by his engineers.
“We wanted to be from 13th to 24th in that first (round),” Dillon said. “We were 13th (tied with Kyle busch) on the front side of that. On the second run I was a little tight. We just kept freeing the car up a little bit there to help ourselves in that third run and it all worked out.”
Ryan Newman earned the fourth spot in the grid, followed by Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Trevor Bayne.
Harvick lost time through the first two turns on his final-round lap.
“Each round was a little bit different,” said the 2014 series champion. “The second round, I had a little traffic getting onto the race track. The first round was pretty clean. I didn’t really change anything. (In the third round) I think I caught the inside of that seam with the right-side tires a little more than I wanted to through (Turns) 1 and 2 and it just started to step out and I had to pedal it three or four times down there because it was loose.
“Pretty good through (Turns) 3 and 4, but, all in all, a good day for our team, and hopefully we can cap that off with a win when we get done on Sunday.”
Notes: Dillon’s Daytona 500 pole was also the last pole for RCR. … Jimmie Johnson qualified 19th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 27th after failing to advance past the first round. … Chase Elliott qualified eighth, six spots ahead of fellow rookie Ryan Blaney.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying – Auto Club 400
1. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 188.482 mph.
2. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 188.329 mph.
3. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 187.637 mph.
4. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 187.276 mph.
5. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 187.222 mph.
6. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 187.212 mph.
7. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 186.916 mph.
8. (24) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 186.795 mph.
9. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 186.557 mph.
10. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 186.345 mph.
11. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 185.687 mph.
12. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 187.642 mph.
13. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 187.495 mph.
14. (21) Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 187.480 mph.
15. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 187.232 mph.
16. (34) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 187.154 mph.
17. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 187.028 mph.
18. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 186.528 mph.
19. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 186.297 mph.
20. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 186.268 mph.
21. (44) Brian Scott #, Ford, 186.176 mph.
22. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 186.075 mph.
23. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 185.773 mph.
24. (14) Brian Vickers, Chevrolet, 185.581 mph.
25. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 186.398 mph.
26. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 186.095 mph.
27. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 186.080 mph.
28. (7) Regan Smith, Chevrolet, 185.696 mph.
29. (15) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 185.639 mph.
30. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 185.486 mph.
31. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 185.099 mph.
32. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 184.990 mph.
33. (83) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 184.611 mph.
34. (38) Landon Cassill, Ford, 184.186 mph.
35. (23) David Ragan, Toyota, 183.052 mph.
36. (98) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 182.348 mph.
37. (30) Josh Wise, Chevrolet, 181.951 mph.
38. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 180.610 mph.
39. (32) Jeffrey Earnhardt #, Ford, 180.415 mph.
Image: Jeff Gross/Getty Images