LONG POND, Pa. – NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying can be fraught with twists, turns and unexpected bumps in the road.
Friday’s qualifying session at Pocono Raceway, which saw Kurt Busch capture the Coors Light Pole for Sunday’s Axalta ‘We Paint Winners’ 400 had them all.
Throughout the day, Turn 2 – the Tunnel Turn – had been a major topic of concern.
“There are grocery store parking lots around the country that are jealous of those three bumps that have developed there,” said Busch, speculating that an offseason beautification project with water feature, enhancing the exterior tunnel entry, somehow created the lumpy racing surface.
“To me, if they could just go ahead and take some bumps like that and put them over in the other corners too, it would be even better,” said Carl Edwards. “It adds something. As long as it’s not breaking parts, I believe it gives us an opportunity to setup passes.”
Ultimately, the issue with the bumpy track took a back seat when Denny Hamlin spun in Turn 1 in the final minute of qualifying, halting the session with 39 seconds remaining and preventing himself and four other drivers from posting a time in the final round.
“It really is a bizarre set of circumstances,” said Jimmie Johnson, a winner of four races this season but one of the drivers left in the qualifying cold. “It’s just unfortunate (for) the guys that were on the track. But as long as NASCAR is consistent (with the rule) through all three series, then we will take our medicine and just deal with it. We (start) ninth. That is the best we’ve been in a while.
Joey Logano, the last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to win at Pocono, was not so forgiving. Logano said he already had a ‘headache’ thanks to the bumps – and that was before his lap in progress was negated by Hamlin’s spin.
“A car spins out and they throw a red flag for it and then you don’t get an opportunity to go out and make a lap,” Logano said. “I don’t understand it. It makes me mad. I don’t get it. We didn’t even have a chance to try to put our car up front.”
Busch suggested that Pocono Raceway attempt to grind the bumps prior to Sunday’s race. Earnhardt was encouraged that Pocono Raceway CEO Brandon Igdalsky was not only aware of the situation, but planning to take action before the Sprint Cup Series returns in late July.
“I feel like they understand that while we can probably get through this weekend with what’s back there right now, it’s probably not in their best interest to leave it as-is,” Earnhardt said. “It will continue to get worse and I don’t think that we can get our race cars through there if it gets much worse than it is.”
Carl Edwards finished second in qualifying. “ My plan with Denny (Joe Gibbs Racing teammate) almost worked out,” Edwards joked. “But he didn’t spin early enough to keep Kurt from catching me.”
Martin Truex Jr. qualified third in the Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, unaware that the session had been cut short but well aware of the challenges in Turn 2.
“It’s wild,” he said. “The first time through there, I thought either our car was way off or there’s something wrong with the race track. The bumps are 10 times bigger than they were last year, which is crazy. You’re going across bumps that are 8-10 inches tall and, literally, the tires are coming off the ground.”
Jeff Gordon qualified fourth and series leader Kevin Harvick, who posted the fastest lap in each of the first two qualifying sessions, was fifth. Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne were the other drivers who were burned by Hamlin’s spin, having waited too long to attempt a lap in the five-minute session.
Kurt Busch noted during practice that he was losing speed in Turns 1 and 3 and elected to focus on the vast majority of the course, not the troubles in Turn 2. His team also overcame a “wrong gear ratio in the transmission in third gear.”
“There was so much disconnect when we first got here,” said Busch, whose third pole of the season was the 19th of his career. “We had to drop back, reboot with (crew chief) Tony Gibson, (engineer) Johnny Klausmeier, the whole gang. Today was a big group-bonding day and a strength-building day on what this No. 41 team can do together.”
With 43 race entries, all drivers qualified for Sunday’s race.
Tony Stewart, mired in 28th in the point standings, was forced to a backup car after a crash coming out of the Tunnel Turn in the 36th minute of Friday’s practice session. Stewart was 28th in the first round of qualifying and failed to advance. “Driver error,” said Stewart, who has managed just one top-10 finish this season. “I was already past the bump. I got loose on the exit (of the turn) and couldn’t catch it.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying – Axalta ‘We Paint Winners’ 400
1. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 177.599 mph.
2. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 177.550 mph.
3. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 177.522 mph.
4. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 177.211 mph.
5. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 177.200 mph.
6. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 176.526 mph.
7. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 175.967 mph.
8. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 177.676 mph.
9. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 177.385 mph.
10. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 177.193 mph.
11. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 176.800 mph.
12. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 176.070 mph.
13. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 176.036 mph.
14. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 176.005 mph.
15. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 175.943 mph.
16. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 175.895 mph.
17. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 175.699 mph.
18. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 175.671 mph.
19. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 175.531 mph.
20. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 175.466 mph.
21. (55) David Ragan, Toyota, 175.418 mph.
22. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 174.832 mph.
23. (15) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 174.236 mph.
24. (9) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 173.819 mph.
25. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 174.791 mph.
26. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 174.771 mph.
27. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 174.683 mph.
28. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 174.652 mph.
29. (33) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 174.317 mph.
30. (51) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 174.031 mph.
31. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 173.873 mph.
32. (40) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 173.772 mph.
33. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 173.695 mph.
34. (7) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 173.410 mph.
35. (38) David Gilliland, Ford, 172.467 mph.
36. (34) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, 172.437 mph.
37. (23) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, Owner Points
38. (98) Josh Wise, Ford, Owner Points
39. (35) Cole Whitt, Ford, Owner Points
40. (26) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, Owner Points
41. (83) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, Owner Points
42. (32) Travis Kvapil(i), Ford, Owner Points
43. (62) Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, Owner Points
Seth Livingstone – NASCAR Wire Service
Image: Chris Trotman/Getty Images