-- FONTANA, Calif. -- Expect the unexpected Sunday in the Auto Club 400, if qualifying for the 200-lap race is any indication.
Austin Dillon nabbed the second pole position of his career, and half of the dozen drivers who advanced to the final round of qualifying failed to make the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Sure, there's a changing of the guard in effect, with Jeff Gordon retired to the television booth to join his colleagues in chanting "It's a new track record," while Tony Stewart is temporarily sidelined with a back injury.
But some of it is just Auto Club Speedway, a wild card among ovals if there ever was one.
Trevor Bayne (seventh for Roush Fenway Racing) had the fastest Ford, while only the presence of three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas in the top six gave the front of the field any kind of feeling of familiarity.
Jimmie Johnson, tops among active drivers with five Fontana wins, qualified 19th.
Dillon seemed almost embarrassed that his other pole came at Daytona International Speedway under restrictor-plate conditions.
"It's a driver's track at Fontana," he said. "You really can study and find different lines and move around and find speed. It makes our whole team feel really good going into Sunday.
"It feels like a career day for me to win a pole somewhere else other than Daytona."
The question now is whether the RCR cars can maintain that speed over a long run of 30 or 40 laps. Recent races at Fontana have been determined by late-race cautions and short-run speed. But a car needs to be strong and consistent over a long run to get into position for any potential short sprint to the finish.
"The guys that are good on the short run here will have a huge advantage if there's a yellow at the end," said defending ACS winner Brad Keselowski, who qualified 15th fastest. "There's a pretty big discrepancy between what it takes to run good here on a short run and a long run.
"It was two years ago where the 24 car [Gordon] was heads and tails the best car on the long run, but he didn't have any short run speed and he ended up with a green-white-checker finish and was 15th or 20th," he recalled. "That shows how you can get eaten up really quick if you don't have that short-run speed at the end. I think a lot of what's going to dictate who is going to win the race is going to be exactly how the yellows fall."
Kevin Harvick qualified his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet on the outside of the front row and enters the race as the prohibitive favorite.
Harvick is a former Fontana winner, and he's coming off an exciting fender-banging victory at Phoenix International Raceway. The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was the most consistent driver among the three qualifying sessions, but his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was narrowly edged by Dillon in the pole shootout.
"Our goal was to run the same lap time all three rounds," Harvick said. "Usually that is going to put you in a spot to have a chance, but all in all it's been a good start to the weekend and we're really looking forward to the race on Sunday. Hopefully we can cap it with a win."
Dillon is the man they will have to beat, and the grandson of Richard Childress feels as though he is ready to add another chapter to the legacy of the RCR team and the iconic No. 3.
He's one position away from having finished in the top 10 in every Cup Series race this year, and he says that's no fluke. Now it's time to make the ultimate statement with a race win and a Chase berth.
"We've wanted to get our cars back to this moment in time to put ourselves with a shot to win a race," Dillon said. "We've got fast cars this year and I'm proud of our guys. They just keep working hard and obviously you see right there that we have a car that has some speed to it.
"Now we've got to see how far we can go with our car as far as lap speed into a run," he added. "Hopefully, we can turn this into something on Sunday."