BRISTOL, Tenn. — Erik Jones' timing was perfect for first career pole in the NASCAR Cup Series — at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he's fighting hard for a playoff position.
The rookie turned a lap at 128.082 mph around the high-banked bullring to take the top starting spot for Saturday night's race. Jones, who drives for Furniture Row Racing, bumped Kyle Larson from the pole.
Larson qualified second at 128.057 to continue his hot streak. He won Sunday at Michigan — where he beat Furniture Row teammates Jones and Martin Truex Jr. on the final restart for his third victory of the year.
Kasey Kahne qualified third and was followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott.
Matt Kenseth was fifth, followed by Truex and Denny Hamlin as Toyota drivers took four of the top seven spots.
This is crunch time in NASCAR because there's just three open spots in the 16-driver playoff field. There's already 13 drivers locked in by race wins — and that doesn't count Joey Logano, who won at Richmond but failed inspection so the victory is wiped out regarding playoff eligibility.
On the bubble for those final spots are Chase Elliott, Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and even Logano — all drivers who made the playoffs last year. Oh, and Jones, who is 16th in the standings.
"We definitely have to win," Jones said. "It's just too big of a deficit with three races to go. I think the pressure is on, but we've been handling the pressure really well."
Elliott, ranked seventh in the Cup standings, is highest among drivers not locked into the playoffs.
"You're never comfortable," Elliott said. "We're certainly in a tight spot. We're there towards the back. I don't exactly know 100 per cent where we are, but I know we're one of the last few spots of non-winners that are still in. That's not a comfortable position to be in, because there is always an opportunity for a guy on the outside to win a race and bump you back another position."
Elliott feels like he needs a win in one of the next three races to stop worrying. Same for McMurray, who has lagged behind the performance of teammate Larson all season but at eighth in the standings, is still having a solid year.
But solid isn't good enough to get into the playoffs with so many race winners this season.
"Am I comfy? No. I'm not," McMurray said. "I think until you can be locked in, you just never know. Another first-time winner changes it quite a bit. There have just been so many kinds of unique winners this year. I mean, if you would have told me in Daytona you could be eighth in points at Bristol, I would say 'You are locked in.' But there have just been a lot of unique winners this year."
The season has been dominated by Truex, who leads the series in wins (4), top-10 finishes (16), playoff bonus points (35), stage wins (15), stage points (312), laps led (1372) and miles led. That consistency has him in amazing shape for Saturday night, when he can clinch the regular season title.
The regular-season title would give Truex a point bonus to start the first three rounds of the playoffs, and make him a heavy favourite to advance to the championship race even though the post-season has yet to begin.
Still, he's not breathing easy.
"It might appear that we have a safe margin, but I've been around long enough to know that points can dwindle fairy quickly," said Truex. "I am not looking ahead or counting points. All the focus right now is getting a good result in Bristol."