SPARTA, Ky. — At a track that used to eat up his race cars, Jimmie Johnson was fastest of the fast in Friday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying session at Kentucky Speedway.
The 43rd of 44 drivers to make a timed run, Johnson toured the 1.5-mile speedway in 29.700 seconds (181.818 mph) to win the pole for Sunday’s Quaker State 400, the second Cup race at Kentucky. Johnson claimed his first Coors Light pole award since Sept. 26, 2010 at Dover and the 26th of his career.
Kyle Busch (181.421 mph) qualified second, followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (181.147 mph). Kevin Harvick will start fourth after a lap at 180.367 mph, one spot ahead of Ryan Newman (180.337 mph).
“It was a good lap — qualifying has not been our strong suit in the last couple of years,” Johnson said. “I’m very happy to get this pole today. My Chevy’s bad fast, and I’m looking forward to going racing.
“I’ve had a lot of crashes here over the years. We used to test here a lot back in the day, and Turns 3 and 4 have taken quite a few (No.) 48 race cars from us. To run well last year (third at Kentucky) was really good for me. I came back with a lot of confidence. Conditions earlier today were so slick that it took a while to get the feeling I was looking for, but I think we’re on the right track now.”
Series leader Matt Kenseth earned the 20th starting position. Clint Bowyer, last week’s winner at Sonoma, will take the green flag from the sixth position, one position better than that of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Violent winds interrupted the session for 17 minutes after 20 cars had made qualifying attempts. After the wind subsided, drivers began running significantly quicker laps on a cooler track. Tony Stewart, the first driver to make a run after the delay, was more than a full mile per hour faster than the top qualifier before the wind storm, Scott Speed.
“My motor home was swaying so hard, I thought somebody had run into me in the motor home lot,” said Johnson, who took refuge in his coach during the storm.
As qualifying progressed, speeds continued to escalate, as the fastest cars in Friday’s opening practice took their turns in inverse order, slower to faster. Greg Biffle, the 25th driver to attempt qualifying, toured the 1.5-mile track in 30.041 seconds (179.754 mph), but his reign at the top of the chart was short-lived.
Jeff Gordon, the 29th qualifier, was the first to run a sub-30-second lap (29.994 seconds) and the first to top 180 mph (180.036 mph), but Newman soon knocked him off the provisional pole with a lap at 180.337 mph.
J.J. Yeley and Mike Skinner failed to make the 43-car field.