Tony Stewart was the fastest on Friday but Matt Kenseth earned the position that mattered most.
Stewart, who won the pole for the spring race at Texas Motor Speedway, registered the fastest qualifying lap on a 1.5-mile speedway in NASCAR history with an average lap speed of 200.111 mph during the second round of Friday’s knockout qualifying.
“It is always cool to be the first guy to be able to do anything. To be the first to run 200 mph average on a 1.5-mile is pretty cool,” Stewart said.
“We hit it the second round and I missed it in the third round, my fault.”
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But it was Kenseth who shined in Round 3, topping the 11 other drivers in the final session with an average lap speed at 199.299 mph to win the pole for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500.
The pole, Kenseth’s second of the season, couldn’t come at a better time.
Kenseth is still searching for his first win of the year and a win in either of the next two races would guarantee him a chance to compete for the series championship in the Nov. 16 season finale at Homestead, Fla.
“It was crazy fast. It’s been a while since they paved the track and it’s getting very abrasive,” said Kenseth, who earned his third pole of the season.
“It was cold outside and you get a lot of grip. We haven’t qualified that good this year most of the year. All three of those laps were all I could get.”
Speed on 1.5-mile tracks have been a trouble spot for Joe Gibbs Racing this season and Toyota teams in general. Kenseth and his JGR teammates, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, have shown improvement as the Chase has headed toward its conclusion.
“We’ll know more how we are after practice in race trim on Saturday,” Kenseth said. “It’s so different between qualifying and the race, you can’t be sure until you get some time on the track in race trim.”
Jimmie Johnson seems certain.
“If Matt is the pole, we’re all going to be in trouble in the race on Sunday,” he said.
When told of Johnson’s remarks, Kenseth said, “I hope he’s right.”
Jeff Gordon, tops in points among the eight Chase drivers still eligible to win the championship, qualified second. Johnson was third, Kurt Busch was fourth and Kevin Harvick was fifth.
Besides Kenseth, Gordon and Harvick, the remainder of the Chase drivers will line up as follows: Ryan Newman, seventh; Joey Logano, 10th; Carl Edwards, 11th; Denny Hamlin, 20th; and Brad Keselowski, 26th.
Keselowski, who likely needs a win at Texas or Phoenix to have a chance at the championship after a poor finish last weekend at Martinsville, Va., struggled to gain speed in qualifying and failed to advance out of the first round.
“We want to be on the pole. That is what we are here for. We just didn’t have enough to get that done,” Keselowski said. “That is unfortunate but there are 25 other guys out there that worked real hard and beat us so we will continue to work hard and try to be ready for the race.”
Asked if he was concerned starting so far back in the field on Sunday, Keselowski was noncommittal.
“Yes and no. If you have a great car it works its way out,” he said. “I am concerned with making sure we have a great car for Sunday’s race.”