Standing tall: Austin Dillon grabs second career pole at Fontana
Austin Dillon’s chart-topping lap from Friday’s lone Sprint Cup practice at Auto Club Speedway was no fluke.
Dillon, the oldest grandson of legendary team owner Richard Childress, maintained the hot hand in qualifying Friday night by taking the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Kevin Harvick led the final round until Dillon’s No. 3 Chevy ripped off his pole-winning lap of 188.482 mph with 15 seconds left on the clock in the final round.
Friday marked Dillon's first pole since the Lewisville, North Carolina native surprised the NASCAR world by snaring the top starting spot for the 2014 Daytona 500 as a Sprint Cup Series rookie.
“It means everything,” said Dillon, a former XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series champion. “I’m not just a Daytona 500 pole sitter now. I’ve got a pole somewhere else.”
Following Dillon and Harvick on Friday were Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards.
Hamlin set a new track record of 188.511 mph in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, but that lap came in Round 2 — not the decisive third round of qualifying.
Dillon’s pole-winning performance was a continuation of an already impressive start to 2016.
After four races, he is eighth in points on the strength of three top-10s and an 11th-place finish.
Dillon finished 21st in points a season ago, scoring just five top-10s the whole year.
“It’s special to get the 3 car back where it needs to be,” said Dillon’s crew chief, Slugger Labbe. "That’s the main goal. We need to get the 3 car back to Victory Lane.”
Notables failing to make the third and final qualifying round, consisting of just 12 drivers, included Brad Keselowski (15th), Martin Truex Jr. (17th), Jimmie Johnson (19th), Matt Kenseth (20th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (27th) and Danica Patrick (31st).
Dillon will be the fourth different pole-sitter in five races during this wide-open NASCAR season. Harvick, the California native and 2011 Fontana champion, will start on the front row for the first time this season.
The famously well-aged asphalt at this venerable 2-mile oval is a favorite of drivers for its tests of skill and strategy, but it also wears out tires quickly. While the track speed record was repeatedly surpassed in the opening laps of the first two rounds, most drivers couldn't improve on their early times.
"After the first run, I tried to save a little bit, but I didn't want to save that much," Dillon said. "Just focused on running that wall, because that's where the race is going to be at."
A swarm of bees forced track officials to abandon the flag stand before qualifying. With a few straggler bees still remaining after most were removed with a non-lethal spray, the starter instead waved the green flag from an elevated platform on the fan side of the fence.
Only a few bees were left by the time racers started qualifying, but nobody was interested in waving a flag in front of them. Fontana officials don't expect the bees to affect the rest of the weekend.
Kasey Kahne advanced through the first two rounds, but didn't complete a lap before time expired in the final round, forcing him to start 12th on Sunday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.