DARLINGTON, S.C. – With two races left before the start of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Brad Keselowski got the momentum builder he needed with Saturday’s pole-winning effort at Darlington Raceway.
“Boy, this feels good,” said Keselowski, who toured the treacherous 1.366-mile Lady in Black in 27.492 seconds (178.874 mph) to edge Kurt Busch for the top starting spot in Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (7 p.m. ET on NBC).
The Coors Light Pole Award was Keselowski’s first of the season, his first at Darlington and the ninth of his career. The 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has but one top five to his credit in six previous starts at the Track Too Tough to Tame, but NASCAR’s switch to a low-downforce configuration for this race seemed to suit the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford.
“For my team, we haven’t had, to date I would say, as strong of a year as what we had last year, and I think that kind of wears on everybody a little bit, including myself,” Keselowski said. “But I feel like we have positive momentum, and you always want to see results that showcase that, and this is one of those results that I feel like we can carry for the next 12 weeks.
“I’m just really pleased with today’s qualifying effort and the momentum we’re carrying.”
With tire fall-off a clear reality at Darlington, Busch set the fast speed of the time trials in the first round, running 179.501 mph to edge Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (179.389 mph) by .017 seconds. Through each subsequent round, the top speeds declined as tires accumulated wear, with Keselowski leading both the second and final sessions, the latter of which determines the pole winner.
Kevin Harvick, last year’s winner from the pole, qualified third at 177.415 mph, followed by Joey Logano (177.319 mph) and Jeff Gordon (177.192 mph).
Harvick, though, didn’t seem particular worried.
“I feel a lot better about it in race trim than I did in qualifying trim,” said the reigning Sprint Cup champion. “We try to concentrate on that the most, because there is so much falloff. The cars are going to slide around so much that I really feel like the cars need to be as manageable as you can make them throughout the night.
“It’s really not about the first two or three laps. You’ve got to be able to stay in there and be able to maneuver your car and be comfortable and keep it off the wall for at least 400 miles so that you can be around at the end. So, we’ll try to take care of our car and make sure we do everything right and get our car adjusted so that we’re ready for the last 100 miles of the race.”
There was plenty of suspense throughout the three rounds of knockout qualifying. Denny Hamlin, pole winner for Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race at the Lady in Black, had to bump his way into the top 24 late in the opening round.
Three-time Darlington winner Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to punch a ticket to the second round, bumping Matt DiBenedetto by .009 seconds for the 24th spot. But Johnson’s run ended with a 19th-place run in the second session.
Trying to squeeze enough speed out of her No. 10 Chevrolet, Danica Patrick tagged the outside wall during her final run in the first round, forcing the team to roll out a backup car. Accordingly, Patrick will start from the rear of the field on Sunday.
Fast in Friday’s practice, Greg Biffle also sustained damage to his No. 16 Ford after contact with the wall in the second round. Biffle was credited with a 24th-place qualifying effort, and his team opted to try to repair the car, rather than resorting to a backup.
Note: Josh Wise, Timmy Hill and Travis Kvapil failed to make the 43-car field.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying – Bojangles’ Southern 500
1. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 178.874 mph.
2. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 177.588 mph.
3. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 177.415 mph.
4. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 177.319 mph.
5. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 177.192 mph.
6. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 176.905 mph.
7. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 176.848 mph.
8. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 176.670 mph.
9. (21) Ryan Blaney(i), Ford, 176.195 mph.
10. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 176.075 mph.
11. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 175.962 mph.
12. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 175.297 mph.
13. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 177.511 mph.
14. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 177.217 mph.
15. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 177.204 mph.
16. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 177.134 mph.
17. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 177.045 mph.
18. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 177.013 mph.
19. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 176.860 mph.
20. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 176.568 mph.
21. (55) David Ragan, Toyota, 176.264 mph.
22. (25) Chase Elliott(i), Chevrolet, 176.119 mph.
23. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 175.943 mph.
24. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 153.498 mph.
25. (83) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, 177.339 mph.
26. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 177.000 mph.
27. (51) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 177.000 mph.
28. (15) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 176.714 mph.
29. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 176.682 mph.
30. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 176.613 mph.
31. (40) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 176.594 mph.
32. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 176.511 mph.
33. (9) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 176.372 mph.
34. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 176.144 mph.
35. (7) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 176.025 mph.
36. (26) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 175.981 mph.
37. (35) Cole Whitt, Ford, Owner Points
38. (38) David Gilliland, Ford, Owner Points
39. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, Owner Points
40. (34) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, Owner Points
41. (23) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, Owner Points
42. (33) Mike Bliss(i), Chevrolet, Owner Points
43. (98) TJ Bell, Ford, Owner Points
Reid Spencer – NASCAR Wire Service
Image: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images