Kenseth Races to Pole in Must-Win Richmond Race
In need of a playoff spot next week and a place to drive next year, Matt Kenseth stormed to the pole position for Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.
Kenseth covered the .75-mile distance in 22.055 seconds (122.421 mph) in the final round of Friday's knockout qualifying session to edge Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (122.277 mph) for the top starting spot by .026 seconds.
The Coors Light Pole Award was Kenseth's second of the season – both coming at Richmond – his third at the "D"-shaped short track and 20th of his career.
Winless in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series so far this season, Kenseth is one of three drivers who can secure a berth in the postseason on points.
Kenseth will exit his ride at JGR at the end of the season and thus far has not announced plans for next year. But Friday's pole run was an emphatic statement that the 45-year-old is still quick.
"The third round, it didn't feel as good, but luckily it was fast enough," said Kenseth, who is driving the No. 20 Hurricane Harvey Relief Toyota in the final regular-season race. "We missed the balance a little bit there, but it was fast enough to get the pole…
Hamlin's final lap produced a better result than the driver expected when he ran it.
"I thought it would be a little worse than it ended up," said Hamlin, last week's winner at Darlington raceway. "I didn't drive the laps as good as I probably could have and probably gotten the pole. Either way, a good run. We improved every round.
"And, obviously, we're hoping for long green-flag runs. That's typically where I excel at this race track. All in all, a pretty good day."
Kurt Busch qualified third, followed by Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. All three drivers, including Kenseth, who can make the playoff of points advanced to the final round on Friday. Chase Elliott will start ninth and Jamie McMurray 11th.
Two drivers who must win on Saturday to claim a playoff spot also cracked the top 12. Despite missing the first hour of Friday's final practice because of pre-qualifying and pre-race inspection failures last week at Darlington, Erik Jones qualified 10th.
Joey Logano, whose April 30 win at Richmond was encumbered by penalty, grabbed the 12th spot on the grid.
"We just had too much fall-off," said Logano, who was third fastest in the first round. "The first run was almost the fastest car, within a couple hundredths (of a second), and then the next run we were a tenth-and-a-half off, and then next run three-tenths off.
"Too much fall off from run to run. I don't know that I completely understand why, but that's where we will start, so it doesn't much matter now."
Nevertheless, Logano isn't discounting his chances to barge into the playoff with a victory.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "I think we're OK. Our long-run speed looked to be OK. I don't think we are lights-out fast, but I think we're close enough that we can certainly make it interesting on everyone."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 21st for his final start at Richmond in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
MATT KENSETH, No. 20 Hurricane Relief Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Starting Position: 1st
How was your qualifying run?
“That was actually a three-lap run – that was a longer run for us today. Yeah, I don’t know. It drove really good the first practice, but it was real cool out and there was a lot of rubber on the track and as the day went on we got worse and worse, so it’s a night race tomorrow night, so I’m hoping that the track is more like it was this morning. We seemed to have good speed and good balance, so this is a great start to the weekend. Just hope for the best tomorrow.”
Did you like the way your Toyota Camry felt on the long runs?
“You know, it’s just so hard to compare here. You know, we had that – we didn’t get to practice right away in that second practice and everybody else is out there getting the track hot, so it’s kind of hard to compare. We ran a 30-lap run or something like that just to kind of get a look everything, but it’s going to be a different animal tomorrow. But Jason’s (Ratcliff, crew chief) good at all the tracks, but he’s real good at this place to figure out what it needs from daytime to nighttime, so have quite a bit of confidence that we’ll be okay.”
How much should we take from qualifying considering you race at night?
“I mean it always changes here. You know I think Jason (Ratcliff) and my engineers, they do a good job every week. I feel like this is one of the places that they get it right a lot more than they get it wrong. Sometimes we’ll kind of struggle through practice and we’ll kind of find a few things for direction. I think he understands kind of what the track goes through and what it will be like tomorrow night. I’m hoping for the best. I thought we were our best right away this morning when the track was the coolest and the cleanest – had some rubber on it from the XFINITY cars, but it was the coolest. As it got hotter we ran worse, so I guess that gives me hope that we’ll have speed tomorrow night.”
Does this make you more enthusiastic about tomorrow?
“I couldn’t possibly be any more enthusiastic. Didn’t I like enthusiastic this morning? Honestly the last – I keep saying this and we just don’t seem like we can get a win, but the last three months or so I feel like we ran really competitive. I’ve been excited to come to the track. Our cars have been much much faster lately than they were at the beginning of the year. Particularly the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and 18 (Kyle Busch) have been getting it done and the 11s (Denny Hamlin) got a couple of wins in there as well. You know what we’ve been close. At New Hampshire we were close - got that late caution. Indy we had it all set up, I thought to win and got that late caution. I feel like we’ve been in the mix, we’ve been better, so I’ve been enthused to come to the track. I feel like our cars are pretty fast right now. We just have to get all the right stuff in them and all do our jobs and all execute and have everything kind of go our way at the end of the race. We just haven’t really got that done yet, but I feel like we’re close. I mean I feel like we’re gaining some momentum. I feel like our cars have good speed and that’s always the first thing. Been doing great on pit road, so I’m pretty enthused.”
How did qualifying go for you?
“The first round it felt really good. The second round it was, it was pretty good as well. Third round it didn’t feel as good, but luckily it was fast enough so it kind of missed the balance just a little bit there, but got a fast enough lap to get the pole. I was happy with my car this morning. Second practice wasn’t as good, so I’m hoping it will be good tomorrow night.”
DENNY HAMLIN, No. 11 FedEx Express, Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing
Starting Position: 2nd
How was your final round effort?
“Pretty good. We improved a little bit each round, which is good. We ran nearly the same time each round, which is good, so we’re – I thought we had a pretty good car in race trim. We still need to work on it a little bit, but luckily my crew chief has a lot of time to talk, so we’ll talk it over tonight and figure out which direction we want to head tomorrow to try to get us another win.”
Were you stronger on short runs or long runs?
“I’m always usually better in the long run than short run. It’s just my driving style, so I think that we want to see long green flag runs for sure.”
Did you have a chance at the pole?
“Yeah, it was – I thought it would be a little worse than it ended up, so I didn’t drive the lap as good as I probably could have and probably gotten the pole, but either way still a good run. We improved every round and obviously we’re hoping for long green flag runs. That’s typically where we, where I excel at this race track, so all in all pretty good day.”
Do you get a sense of how Matt Kenseth is doing being on the bubble?
“It all seems fine. I mean, all those guys – I think at some point in the race, you’re all going to see them pretty close together. I suspect everyone will be bringing their best and then some of the race tomorrow – all those guys – but ultimately you’ve got what you’ve got and you can only do so much with it, so I think they handle pressure fine. Matt’s (Kenseth) in a good position where I think he’s going to run well enough to make sure he gets a spot and so I’m going to hopefully beat him and he finishes second.”
Is there any reason to expect more mayhem tomorrow than normal?
“I don’t think so. I mean, you know, it’s the whole thing is you’ve got to – you win and you’re in, right? So why wreck for sixth place? I mean, these guys have got to be running one-two to crash out. I mean, they’d be fools to be – there’d be a lot of mayhem, people going all out and Hail Marys and things like – you can’t Hail Mary from the 20th spot, so you’ve got to be up front. You’ve got to have a fast enough car to be up front, so I think that you can only do what you can do, like I said, and I’m sure all these guys are – they’ll race each other clean and it should be a fun night.”
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