Keselowski wins first Sprint Cup knockout qualifying at Phoenix

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Avondale, AZ (SportsNetwork.com) - Brad Keselowski won the inaugural knockout- style of qualifying in the Sprint Cup Series after setting a new track record at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday.

During the second and final round of qualifying, Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, turned a lap at 139.384 mph to become the first pole winner under the new qualifying format for NASCAR's premier series. He earned his fourth pole in the series. His last one came in July 2013 at New Hampshire.

Starting with Phoenix, NASCAR is using knockout qualifying for all points- paying races in Sprint Cup. It was not used for last week's Daytona 500, as time trials and the twin qualifying races (Budweiser Duel) determined the starting lineup. NASCAR is utilizing this qualifying format for the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series as well.

Phoenix, a one-mile oval, had two rounds in qualifying. Racetracks measuring 1.25 miles or more in length feature three rounds.

"We had a really fast car, and there is some pride to be taken in being the first one to win a Sprint Cup pole in this format," Keselowski said. "I am sure [qualifying] will undergo a few adjustments along the way, but it is very rewarding and a testament to my team and how fast of a car they gave me. Then it was just a matter of executing on my end. We were able to do that. I didn't think I ran a good enough lap to be quite honest. When they told me the time, I said, 'Alright, I will take it'."

Joey Logano, who is Keselowski's teammate, earned the second starting spot with a lap at 139.265 mph, giving Team Penske a front row sweep for Sunday's 312-lap (500-kilometer) race at Phoenix.

Keselowski ran five laps during round two, with his quickest speed/time coming on his second lap. Logano also made five laps, with his fastest on lap two.

The second round featured the top-12 finishers from round one. Both Logano and Keselowski ran just two laps in the opening segment, which was 30 minutes in length and included 46 drivers, before they finished it in first and second, respectively. The final segment was 10 minutes long.

Keselowski and Logano were the only drivers who surpassed Jimmie Johnson's previous track qualifying record of 139.222 mph, set last November.

"Team Penske being one and two in the first time out doing this thing just goes to show all the hard work over the offseason," Logano said. "Phoenix is the first racetrack we go to where handling comes into play. You come here and start off strong, one and two, and it's a big deal for our whole team."

Jamie McMurray qualified third, followed by Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the Daytona 500 for the second time last Sunday.

Qualifying sixth through 12th were: Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, rookie Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin.

Kevin Harvick failed to advance into the second round by only 0.001 seconds. Harvick will start 13th in the race. He won last year's fall event at Phoenix.

"We didn't make any qualifying runs in practice [held earlier in the day], so we just kind of missed the balance of the car on the first run out on the racetrack," Harvick said.

Other notable drivers and their finishing positions in qualifying include: Clint Bowyer (14th), Jeff Gordon (17th), Matt Kenseth (19th), Tony Stewart (20th), Carl Edwards (23rd), rookie and Daytona 500 pole winner Austin Dillon (24th) and Danica Patrick (33rd).

Edwards won at Phoenix one year ago.

Coming to Phoenix, drivers and teams weren't quite sure what to expect with qualifying. They learned a lot about the format on Friday and plan to learn more in the future.

"It is a lot more nerve-wracking, and there is usually a pretty good rule of thumb that if it is a lot more nerve-wracking for drivers then it is usually a lot more fun for fans and partners and all those things," Keselowski said. "That is a good thing. I am more curious about the feedback we will get from our fans and everyone as to whether or not they like it.

"At the end of the day, it isn't about if I like it, but if they like it. I like it because it fits my style, but that is neither here nor there. It is if our fans care for it more. I will be interested to see the feedback over time."

Teams did face issues with trying to cool their engines. NASCAR does not permit teams to use cooling units during qualifying. After making one fast lap, most drivers opted to drive on the inside of the track at speeds that were 100 mph slower to reduce their engine temperatures. Drivers at much slower speeds steered clear of those making qualifying runs.

Jeff Gordon was one of many who expressed his concerns about engine cooling during qualifying.

"The biggest thing for us is that it's all learning as we go through this," Gordon said. "We have to figure out a way to cool the cars. You shouldn't have to go ride around the track and try to cool it. You shouldn't have to sit there with the engine fan on, because it just doesn't do the job.

"All we need is a way to cool the engines, and we'll go out there and make multiple runs and continue to make adjustments to try and improve the lap time. Unfortunately, we had to sit there and try to get it cooled down to make one last attempt at it."

The revised format was used for the first time in Nationwide last week at Daytona. Though qualifying was shortened due to rain, 18-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski won the pole for the series' season-opener. Qualifying for the Truck Series event at Daytona was washed out. Trucks will use the format for the first time next month at Martinsville.

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