By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Running a track-record lap he described as “insanely fast,” Las Vegas native Kurt Busch led qualifying for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).
The Coors Light Pole Award was Busch’s second straight in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, following last week’s top qualifying effort at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Busch remains the only driver to win a pole this year with the 2016 lower-downforce competition package.
“Two poles in a row — this is great,” said Busch, who scored his 21st career pole and his second at the 1.5-mile speedway, the first coming in 2010. “This is how you work through an offseason and show up to qualify. Now we just need to find that speed on the long run.”
Busch ran 196.238 mph (27.505 seconds) in the money round to edge Joey Logano (195.851 mph) for the top starting spot. Matt Kenseth (195.780 mph) qualified third, followed by Brad Keselowski (195.666 mph) and Austin Dillon (195.624 mph).
But the path to the pole wasn’t totally smooth for the 2004 series champion. Busch’s No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet tightened up during the second round, forcing Busch to make a second run to crack the top 12 and advance to the final round.
“I’m really proud of the team to help me get to that third round,” Busch said. “I was overdriving the car, and I needed to settle in, and (crew chief) Tony Gibson made a great adjustment in that last round. I was hoping to put on a show for the home crowd, get the pole, but now we’ve got to go to work (in Saturday’s practice). I hope we can get the car dialed in for long-run speed for Sunday.”
Despite the lower-downforce configuration, the cars were exceedingly fast.
In the first round of knockout qualifying, Busch paced the 39-car field with a track-record-obliterating lap at 196.378 mph (27.498 seconds). Before the round was over, seven drivers had bettered Jeff Gordon’s 2015 mark of 194.679 mph (27.738 seconds).
At the end of three rounds, 14 drivers had improved on Gordon’s mark, with Busch’s first-round lap established as the new track record.
Defending race winner Kevin Harvick, however, wasn’t among the fastest performers in Round 1. In fact, Harvick needed three attempts before he could bump his way into the top 24 in the final minute and advance to the second round.
Ultimately, Harvick claimed the sixth starting spot, a remarkable achievement for a driver who had five laps on his tires by the time he finished qualifying.
Logano’s effort in time trials represented a dramatic improvement over his 26th-place qualifying run at Atlanta.
“I think we learned from our mistakes,” Logano said. “It’s not like we hit on something huge (in Friday’s practice). We found some things… you find some direction on things that are better than others and what this package wants compared to last year’s.
“You get some of that stuff, but there is no finding three tenths of a second. It’s hard to hit on something like that. In general, we got a better direction of what we need to do to our car. It showed today with both Team Penske cars up there in qualifying.”
Qualifying was not without its share of casualties. Carl Edwards cut his right rear tire, smacked the outside wall and was forced to a backup car for Sunday’s race. Jamie McMurray fought a tight handling condition in the first round and brushed the wall on his second attempt, qualifying 29th.
Note: Only one driver has won a Sprint Cup race from the pole at LVMS. That was Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch’s brother, in 2009.
Image: Rusty Jarrett for Chevy Racing