BRISTOL, Tenn. — Across the board, drivers marveled at the speed of NASCAR’s Generation-6 cars during qualifying for Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
None more than Kyle Busch, the fastest of nine drivers to break the 15-second mark on their qualifying lap. Prior to Friday, only three drivers (Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon) had turned a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying lap in less than 15 seconds.
”I like driving it,” said Busch, whose 11th career pole marked his first Coors Light Pole Award at Bristol and the first time he’d qualified higher than ninth on the .533-mile oval. ”You can drive it a lot more like the older car we had years ago where you can abuse it a little bit.
”The previous (Generation-5) car was all about being smooth and precise. (With) this one, you can make a little more speed by driving it a little harder.”
Busch, no stranger to victory lane at Bristol, captured the pole with a lap 129.535 mph (14.813 seconds) in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Newman’s track record, set in 2003, had been 128.709 mph.
Each of Friday’s top three qualifiers — Busch, Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin — shattered Newman’s mark. Hamlin looked like he might join his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate on the front row until Kahne knocked him down a peg .
Brian Vickers , Paul Menard , Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr. also eclipsed 15 seconds, with Joey Logano rounding out the top 10.
”The car felt great during that lap,” said Busch, who has come from off the pace to win five times (including four of the last eight Cup races) at Bristol . ”We’ve never really worried too much about qualifying runs. We unloaded with a really good race car and we just kept fine-tuning to make it a little bit better — and we were able to get it where it was pretty quick in practice.”
For Hamlin, if even for just a couple laps, it was felt good to get back to all-out racing. Hamlin had spent recent days embroiled in controversy, refusing to pay a NASCAR-issued fine after critical comments regarding the Gen-6 car at Phoenix.
He had no gripe with his machinery on Friday.
”I’m pretty happy with what we’ve got,” said Hamlin, who earlier in the day said he had ”bigger fish to fry” than worrying about the $25,000 fine. ”For my team’s sake, we need to focus on running as good as we can and trying to make this Chase. Any distraction is something that you don’t need — especially when the competition is so close. You just can’t afford anything that hampers your ability to go win, so this is going to be a step in the right direction for us.”
Kahne, driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, thought he might have challenged Busch had he not been a little tight between Turns 1 and 2.
”I felt like I may have given up a little bit in 1 and 2, which would have made it really close for the pole,” Kahne said. ”But still we were very good in 3 and 4. The car was balanced really nice.”
How fast can cars go at Bristol? Maybe closer to 14 seconds than 15, according to Busch.
”I think a lot of it is probably (about the) tire,” he said. ”You could certainly put a softer tire on here and go lights-out. You’d have trouble making it very much longer after that, but I betcha you could run somewhere it the low 14s.”
Cup Series points leader Jimmie Johnson qualified 13th. Keselowski, who trails by five points, rolls off seventh, but Dale Earnhardt Jr., 10 points back in points, qualified 32nd.
Scott Riggs was the lone driver failing to qualify on Friday. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was forced to change an engine during practice and will start at the rear of the field despite qualifying with the 28th fastest time.