Kyle Larson can thank Mother Nature for a career first. Larson will lead the field to the green for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 after NASCAR made the decision to cancel qualifying Friday afternoon after rain shortened the only practice session the Sprint Cup series has had this week. It was the second week in a row that rain has washed out qualifying.
Larson put down a lap at 182.537 mph in a shortened 50-minute practice session halted by rain at 11:20 a.m. on Friday. With a new set of competition rules for the 1.5 mile speedway, and with teams having had no practice this week, NASCAR decided to cancel the qualifying in the hopes of giving teams more practice with the new low-downforce package being introduced for this race.
“I was glad we got a little bit of track time there,” Larson said. “We were quick off the truck, which I was really proud of my team for just because we haven’t had any laps on this new package, unlike some of the other teams that have gotten to do some testing. So, I was happy with that. We were quick in race trim off the truck. And then we went to mock qualifying trim and we were really fast. I was able to lay down a really fast lap.”
Defending race winner Brad Keselowski will start second, Jeff Gordon third with Joey Logano fourth, and Martin Truex Jr. fifth. Larson was happy to get his first NASCAR Sprint Cup pole in 56 starts dating back to 2013.
“I don’t think there’s any disadvantage, ever, in being the pole sitter,” Larson said. “You get the number one pit stall, or number two pit box I guess it is, and you’re starting off the race in clean air. So, just as long as you can maintain that track position, you should have a good race. Judging off the truck race last night, it seemed like two tires and stuff were good. So, I think you’ll see a lot of pit strategies going on to try to gain track position, and then also maintain it.”
Gordon will be making his final start at Kentucky Saturday night. It remains the only track that the legendary Gordon has never won at. In fact, Gordon has never led a lap here.
“It’s no different than any other weekend,” Gordon said. “I’ve been so fortunate to have been part of a team throughout my whole career that goes to every track that’s capable of winning; and if not, with putting as much effort out as possible to prepare for each race.”
“That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been able to win at so many race tracks,” he added. “I do feel like Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and our team of engineers have recognized that we have not maybe brought as good of race cars on a consistent basis this year, as we did last year; and they’ve been working really hard. I think today we saw some of that hard work paying off. The car has good speed. So, there’s no reason why we can’t do it this weekend.”
Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch with last week’s winner at Daytona Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounding out the top 10. While the top 10 can look forward to racing Saturday night, for the second week in a row Ryan Blaney and the legendary Wood Brothers will be going home. He’ll join Michael McDowell and Travis Kvapil those not making the field.
“The rules are the rules,” co-owner Eddie Wood said. “In the event of a rainout they set the field by attempts, which means how many races you’ve attempted to race this year. So us and the 95 have attempted less races than 43 other guys, so we’re the ones that are out but that’s not a new rule. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember, and then they set the field by the practice speeds.”
“Missing races, if you’re slow and you miss a race because you’re not fast enough, is a bad deal,” Wood added. “That just kills your soul, but you can’t do anything about the weather. We’ve been really lucky for the past seven years and haven’t missed one, but now the numbers seem to be leveling out.”
Cup drivers were able to get on the track for a 90-minute practice later in the day. They were finally able to test a new package in place for Saturday night that includes rear spoilers that are reduced from 6 to 3.5 inches with the front splitter expanded by 25 inches. An overhang was also reduced by 1.75 inches. The hope is that the new package will create more passing. During the second practice Matt Kenseth spun but suffered no damage.
“Going too fast for conditions,” Kenseth said. “I didn’t hit water or anything. There was nothing wrong with the track or anything, I just spun out.”
Kenseth said he is okay with the new rules package. Kenseth will start 16th Saturday night.
“I think the package is fine, it’s the same for everybody. I feel like all our cars seem to have pretty decent speed, we just haven’t been able to get our balance tied together as we wanted to so far,” he said. “I really think it will be okay. The cars are definitely edgier than before, a little less forgiving. I think it’s going to be fine. Everyone is in the same boat, I think it’s fine.”
The full lineup for Saturday can be found here. The NASCAR Sprint Cup series Quaker State 400 will get the green flag just after 7:30 p.m. ET with live coverage on the NBC Sports Network starting at 7:00 p.m. ET.