LOUDON, N.H.–Brad Keselowski didn’t think his lap was fast enough.
Jimmie Johnson was late to the grid after trouble getting through inspection.
Kurt Busch hit the rev limiter entering the first corner.
Nevertheless, those three drivers were to lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 after sweeping the top three starting spots in track-record time during Friday’s time trials at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
That, at least, was what was supposed to happen, before Johnson’s inspection issues continued after qualifying and the time of the No. 48 Chevrolet was disallowed after the front of the car failed the height stick test on both sides–with both sides registering too low.
As a result, Johnson will start the race from the 43rd position.
Even without the competition from Johnson, the Cup series leader, the qualifying performance was particularly gratifying to Keselowski, who edged Johnson for the pole by. .004 seconds before Johnson’s time was disallowed.
The reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has been struggling to finish races of late and has slipped out of the top 12 in the series standings, placing his Chase hopes in jeopardy.
“We’ve had the speed and we can get the execution, and things are starting to come together,” said Keselowski, who picked up his first Coors Light pole award of the season, his second at Loudon and the third of his career.
“There’s not a better time for it to happen, and I’m really excited about it… If we can just close it out–we had a great car at Daytona (last Saturday) and I didn’t close it out at the end, and we had a great car at several other places and I didn’t close it out. That’s what it’s all about in this sport.”
Keselowski negotiated the Magic Mile in 28.022 seconds (135.922 mph). Kurt Busch (135.835 mph) will start beside him on the front row, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (135.786 mph), Kyle Busch (135.757 mph) and Jeff Gordon (135.525 mph).
All told, nine drivers broke Ryan Newman’s mark of 28.165 seconds (135.232 mph), set July 15, 2011.
Johnson was getting antsy as his team had to correct a problem with the length one of the side skirts and get the weight of the car right before NASCAR would clear the No. 48 Chevrolet for qualifying.
“We cut it close on time,” said Johnson, who was on the five-minute clock when he got to the grid. “I tried to get my heart rate down, took a few deep breaths and fired it off, went off and had a nice lap. The car drove really good, and missed it by a few thousandths for the pole.”
In reality, the missed it by a notch or two on the height stick.
Busch didn’t encounter any issues until he took the green flag.
“I drove down into (Turn) 1 and hit the rev chip so soon that I thought the guys missed the setting on the rev chip,” Busch said. “It can mean two things. It can mean you’re going really fast, or it can mean it’s set improperly.
“Luckily, it was set properly, and we were just fast, but it threw my timing off. I really couldn’t quite figure out corner entry and it changed the way I applied the brake and I just had to adjust. But it was such a weird lap. I was expecting (crew chief) Todd (Berrier) to tell me that we were going to be 20th and he said that we ran an .05 (actually 28.040 seconds).
“I was like, ‘Hey, if we can screw up that big and have that much fun while we’re screwing up and be third, we’ll take it.'”
Earnhardt may have had the fastest car of all, but he ran through a weeper (water seeping up through the track) coming to the green. Nevertheless, he was only .028 seconds off the pole speed.
“I ran through the water there, and the car kind of slid out about half a car length and messed the line up on exit and really never got on the throttle the way we could have,” Earnhardt said. “I might have under-drove the entrance (to the corner) a little bit, which put me through the water. I should have run around it, but I was just a little lower than I planned on being at that particular part of the race track.
“Car’s been fast all day; been real happy in race trim. (Crew chief) Steve (Letarte) and the guys have done a great job bringing an awesome car. Hopefully, we can get to work on it tomorrow and make it a race winner.”
Morgan Shepherd posted the 42nd fastest time in qualifying. When he takes the green flag on Sunday at age 71, he be the oldest driver to start a Cup race, superseding Jim Fitzgerald, who was 65 when he raced at Riverside in 1987.
Shepherd started his first Cup race June 20, 1970 at Hickory, before all but eight other drivers in the starting field for Sunday’s race were born.