CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Busch showed Joe Gibbs Racing may have found some speed at just the right time of the season with a pole-winning run Thursday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Busch turned a lap at 197.390 mph to earn the top starting spot for Saturday night’s race. Denny Hamlin, his JGR teammate, qualified his Toyota third. Wedged in the middle was Jeff Gordon of Hendrick Motorsports, who went 197.217 to qualify his Chevrolet second.
“We’re edging our way to the top, but anything can happen in this game,” Busch said. “It’s a fickle business. You’ve got to take things one step at a time.”
Such is the nature of NASCAR’s new elimination format in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Four drivers are eliminated every three races, and several top names are in trouble as they head into the second race of the second round. Six-time and defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski go into Saturday night’s race needing very strong runs to give themselves breathing room headed into next week’s elimination race at Talladega.
Two of the three failed to make it into the final round of Thursday night qualifying. Johnson, winner of the Coca-Cola 600 here in May, had to wave off his first qualifying attempt and squeaked into the second round with a late run.
He then failed to make it out of the second round. Johnson will start 21st and is ranked last in the 12-driver Chase field.
“Just didn’t have the speed there on that final run,” Johnson said. “It’s disappointing. There’s no way around it.”
Also surprising was that both Keselowski and Joey Logano, two of the top qualifiers all season, failed to advance into the final round. It’s only the second time this season both Penske cars have failed to make it to the final round of qualifying.
“We’ve been off a little bit in qualifying trim since we’ve been here,” Keselowski said. “But I thought our race trim was really good in practice and that’s the most important thing so we’ll keep working.”
Logano will start 13th with Keselowski 17th. Logano won last week to earn an automatic berth into the third round, and Keselowski was dominant in the first round of the Chase.
but is currently ranked 10th in the field.
“We are going to be all right in the race,” Logano said. “This track is very much on the razor’s edge. It takes just a small mistake or the car being just a little bit off to lose some time. It’s fine though. We can see the front of the field and the car was good in race trim.”
Earnhardt did make it into the final round, along with three other championship-eligible drivers. Ryan Newman qualified fifth, Kevin Harvick was seventh, Earnhardt was ninth and Carl Edwards 10th.
It was a strong day for Stewart-Haas Racing, which spent two days testing at Charlotte last week. Harvick, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch were among the fastest four drivers in Thursday practice, and they showed their speed throughout the three qualifying rounds.
Kurt Busch actually set the track record with a lap at 198.771 mph in the second round of qualifying. It broke Hamlin’s record of 195.624 set in 2013 and was the fastest lap ever recorded on a 1.5-mile track.
Kurt Busch will start 11th, and Harvick seventh. Stewart will lead the SHR contingent from the fourth starting spot, his best qualifying effort in the seven races he’s entered since sitting out three following the death of sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr.
Trevor Bayne failed to qualify for the race. He was attempting to make it in an extra car for Roush Fenway Racing, where he’ll drive the No. 6 in the Sprint Cup Series next season.