Matt Kenseth continued the Joe Gibbs Racing hot streak Friday putting down a pole-winning lap of 197.488 mph around the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway. It was Kenseth’s 16th career pole his third of the season and his first at Michigan. The top spot gives the four-car JGR stable its fourth pole in the last five races with four of those races being won by a Gibbs Toyota, Kyle Busch has three wins and Kenseth won two weeks ago at Pocono. Kenseth said he was surprised that he was the one who put down the fastest lap of the day.
“We were a long ways off Carl (Edwards) in practice and I don’t even know what changes they made, but they changed a lot of stuff that really woke this thing up and had some speed,” Kenseth said. “I knew I got through (turns) one and two good, but Denny (Hamlin) put up such a fast lap and I got into three and I was bound and determined that I was going to make it wide open. I had the first half of the corner, it was the second half that was starting to get exciting. I got sliding up the track and bogged down a little bit. I wasn’t sure that we were going have it.”
Denny Hamlin, another JGR Toyota will start second, with Carl Edwards who won two of the last five pole starting third; Kyle Busch who won three consecutive races leading up to Pocono will start sixth.
“In the final round there, it was just a matter of not screwing up or it could have been all top-four,” Busch said. “I just got too tight there and didn’t hit the lap perfect and we ended up sixth. We have a good car for Sunday and we’ll keep working in both practices tomorrow and hopefully we can put ourselves in position to win.”
Austin Dillon and Tony Stewart busted up the JGR party between Edwards and Busch and will start fourth and fifth respectively.
“It’s four weeks in a row now that we have qualified in the top five,” Stewart said. “I’m really proud of that. We just have to figure out how to finish it off for the rest of the weekend like we have.”
The qualifying session was the second time Friday that teams had a chance to try NASCAR’s high drag package. It was instituted at Indianapolis last month and features a higher rear spoiler along with other aerodynamic modifications meant to increase passing. The new setup has drastically reduced speeds; all were well under the track record of 206.558 mph set by Jeff Gordon last August. Pole-winning laps have been at the 200-plus mph for five of the last six Michigan races before Friday.
“This package is so different, it’s really a balance,” Kenseth said. “You have to have a car that’s fast, but you have to have a car that handles good or at least halfway decent around other cars so looking forward to getting out there tomorrow and getting to work. Hopefully putting ourselves in some different positions to try to figure out what we need for a setup to be able to maneuver around traffic and still be fast if we can stay up front.”
NASCAR gave teams a 2-hour, 25-minute practice session earlier Friday with Edwards leading the session with a lap of 196.046 mph. With teams focused on qualifying however, the new package still has many unknowns in race trim.
“The balance does change quite a bit when you’re behind somebody,” Hamlin said. “You want to search for that clean air, maybe it widens the race track out. That’s a possibility as well. I’m interested really to see how much suck up you can get in these cars down the straightaways. It’s going to be a different balance – no question about it going out there wide open, or close to it right now. Probably won’t be the case in race trim. We’ll see how that all plays out.”
Due to the package, NASCAR elected to forgo its multi-car group qualifying in favor of single car runs Friday. Qualifying orders were set by speed with all four of the Gibbs cars leading the first session, Kenseth was first followed by Edwards, Busch and Hamlin. Clint Bowyer was the final driver to make the 12-driver cutoff to advance to the second and final round of qualifying, edging out his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate David Ragan by just eight-thousandths of a second.
Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Joey Logano round out the top ten. Jeff Gordon in his final race at Michigan failed to advance to the final round, he will start 21st Sunday. Reed Sorenson failed to make the race. The fill lineup can be found here, Friday’s qualifying results here. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Pure Michigan 400 will get the green flag just after 1:30 p.m. ET Sunday with live coverage on the NBC Sports Network starting at 2:00 p.m. ET.