By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
RICHMOND, Va. – Matt Kenseth won’t have to come from the middle of nowhere, as he did last Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he started 22nd, charged toward the front in the closing laps and finished fourth.
Quite the contrary. In Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (on FOX at 2 p.m. ET) at Richmond International Raceway, Kenseth will lead the field to the green flag in the ninth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season after winning the pole during Friday’s knockout qualifying session.
Kenseth posted a lap at 121.076 mph (22.300 seconds) to edge Ryan Blaney (120.854 mph) for the top starting spot by .041 seconds. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota claimed his first Coors Light Pole Award of the season, his second at Richmond and the 19th of his career.
Kenseth was fast enough to make the cut for the first two rounds despite running a single lap in each, and the tire conservation paid off in the money round.
“We had enough speed in our Circle K Toyota Camry that we only had to do one lap each of the first two rounds to get us into the third round, and we improved a little bit the second lap (in the final round). It was a good qualifying effort for us. Feels good to be on the pole.
Kenseth is 20th in points after bottom-five finishes at Daytona, Phoenix and Fontana, and qualifying rainouts hurt him at Bristol and Martinsville, where he had to start mid-pack on owner points.
“This year has not been a good year for us, obviously, so far,” Kenseth said. “We finished strong at Bristol, but we didn’t get to qualify because of the rain, and that put us in the middle of the pack–there and Martinsville.
“We haven’t been getting any stage points. We’re buried in the points back there and we finally got a decent finish last week, so hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and hopefully collect some of the stage points. But most importantly we’re in the mix for a win at the end of the day.”
Martin Truex Jr. (120.681 mph) will start third, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (120.471 mph) and Joey Logano (120.380 mph).
It was the third second-place qualifying effort of the season for Blaney, who also put the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford on the front row at Phoenix and Texas.
We weren’t great the first round but kept getting steps better each round, which we’ve done a really good job of this year,” Blaney said. “I thought that’s where we struggled a lot last year. We didn’t improve last year, we would go backwards. This year we’re improving round-to-round.
“It’s just communication and knowing what we need to change in our car. That’s something to be proud of. That’s a lot of second starts now. I really want to race the Clash at Daytona (the season-opening exhibition race primarily for pole winners). That’s my biggest thing right now. It’s upsetting me that we can’t get a pole. I think our Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion is good—we’ll find out in race trim.”
Both Kenseth and Blaney saved their fastest laps for the final round. The same couldn’t be said of Logano, who ran the fastest lap of the afternoon (121.468 mph) in the second round but couldn’t sustain his speed in the third.
“We just lost a little bit there the last run,” said Logano who tied Kevin Harvick for the fastest lap in the opening round at 120.870 mph. “We got loose into (Turns) 3 and 4, missed it the first lap and did the same exact thing the second lap.
“It’s so frustrating when you win the first two rounds and the one that pays the money, you’re not there. That’s always frustrating. I guess we have decent speed in our car… it is just frustrating. I don’t know what else to say. It just sucks.”
Notes: Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the final round and will start 12th in the first race after he announced his retirement from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Racing at the end of the season… Neither series leader Kyle Larson nor second-place Chase Elliott advanced to the final round. Larson will start 18th and Elliott 14th… If Jimmie Johnson is to win his third straight race, he’ll have to do it from the 17th starting position.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying – Toyota Owners 400
1. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 121.076 mph.
2. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 120.854 mph.
3. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 120.681 mph.
4. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 120.471 mph.
5. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 120.380 mph.
6. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 120.326 mph.
7. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 120.171 mph.
8. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 120.144 mph.
9. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 120.027 mph.
10. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 119.691 mph.
11. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 119.090 mph.
12. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 119.000 mph.
13. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 119.697 mph.
14. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 119.670 mph.
15. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 119.670 mph.
16. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 119.665 mph.
17. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 119.638 mph.
18. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 119.379 mph.
19. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 119.226 mph.
20. (77) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 118.948 mph.
21. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 118.896 mph.
22. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 118.640 mph.
23. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 118.437 mph.
24. (13) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 117.025 mph.
25. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 119.079 mph.
26. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 119.011 mph.
27. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 118.917 mph.
28. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 118.864 mph.
29. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 118.796 mph.
30. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 118.369 mph.
31. (23) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 118.131 mph.
32. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 117.940 mph.
33. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 117.386 mph.
34. (83) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 117.096 mph.
35. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 116.995 mph.
36. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 116.939 mph.
37. (51) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 116.189 mph.
38. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 82.792 mph.