JOLIET, Ill. (AP) With rain in Friday's forecast at Chicagoland Speedway, the only time on track became a strategy session for the championship contenders.
If qualifying was rained out, the field for Sunday's opening round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship would be set by practice speeds and teams had to decide if they wanted to focus on simply posting a fast lap to grab a strong starting position.
It worked out perfectly for Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards, who all shot to the top of the speed chart in practice and were rewarded with the top three starting spots in Sunday's race when rain indeed washed out qualifying.
''We definitely saw the radar and the forecast,'' said Newman, who will start second on Sunday. ''Made one (practice) run and switched it over, spent the rest of the time doing mock qualifying runs, knowing we had a chance of that being our actual qualifying position.''
Edwards said crew chief Jimmy Fennig made one final adjustment late in practice that found him additional speed and moved him to third on the sheet.
''We started the day thinking this might happen and Jimmy did a great job with a strategy,'' Edwards said. ''I think that's what all of us are going to have to do thought the Chase - we're just going to have to get every little bit you can every race weekend.''
The 10-race Chase opens at Chicago under a radically different format introduced this year by NASCAR. Using an elimination method for the expanded 16-driver field, four drivers will be knocked out of contention every three races.
The first round of cuts comes Sept. 28 at Dover, and all 16 drivers came into Chicago just trying to make it through the first round. A victory earns an automatic advancement into the next round.
Busch, who finished second in the Chase opener last year, will start from the pole and was buoyed by a strong practice session with his Joe Gibbs Racing team. The organization has lagged behind Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske all season, and doesn't seem to have the same pace as the championship favorites.
He's hoping Gibbs has turned it up for the Chase, and his practice session was the sign of big things to come on Sunday.
''Having a good (speed) there in practice means a lot, but there's obviously a lot of things that need to happen in the race this weekend for us and getting off to a good start and being able to carry that into the next 10 weeks,'' he said.
Matt Kenseth, his Gibbs teammate, will start fifth, while defending champion Jimmie Johnson will start seventh, one spot ahead of Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon.
Kevin Harvick will start 12th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 13th, Kurt Busch 14th, A.J. Allmendinger 17th, Kasey Kahne 19th, Greg Biffle 20th, Aric Almirola 23rd, Denny Hamlin 24th, and Penske drivers Brad Keselowski 25th and Joey Logano 28th.
''I do have a lot of confidence that we're going to figure this out,'' Logano said.