By KEVIN HARRIS
When NASCAR fans think of the best qualifiers in the Sprint Cup Series, Dale Earnhardt Jr. does not exactly pop up in their heads.
On Friday during qualifying for tonight’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, Earnhardt put his reputation as a mediocre qualifier on the backburner for one day.
NASCAR’s reigning most popular driver captured the pole with a lap of 183.636 miles per hour, shattering the previous track record by nearly two miles per hour. Five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson set the old track record last year at 181.818 mph.
It was Earnhardt’s 12th pole of his career and his first since June 10, 2012 at Pocono Raceway.
“I like the track,” Earnhardt said. “It’s got a lot of age on the asphalt, which we like. You can run the bottom or the top — you have a lot of different options. You’re not really restricted or limited to where you can run in the corners, and we don’t really mind the bumps in the corners.”
Earnhardt was not the only driver to eclipse the previous track record on Friday. Nine racers posted qualifying laps faster than Johnson’s old mark.
Carl Edwards, who is currently second in the Sprint Cup standings, will start second in tonight’s race with a lap of 183.306. Edwards made a great effort to try and knock Earnhardt off the pole late in the qualifying session thanks to some cloud cover that cooled the track.
“That was pretty close,” Edwards said. “I think if I had to do it over again, we might have a pretty good shot at it. As poorly as we’ve run here, it’s a really good lap. I don’t know if it’s worse to be second or 22nd. It’s tough to be that close.”
Johnson, who was the 10th driver to qualify, was the first racer to break his own track record with a circuit of 183.144 mph before Earnhardt came out five spots later to bump him off the provisional pole. Johnson will start tonight’s race from the third position, as he moved his car down on the track’s apron in the frontstretch during his lap to get as much speed as possible out of his No. 48 Chevrolet.
“I dipped down below the racing line on the apron across the start-finish line to make the track a little shorter,” Johnson said. “The car was good. [Turns] 1 and 2 were spot on.”
Kyle Busch, who won the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011, posted the fourth-fastest speed in 182.593 mph. Marcos Ambrose was fifth (182.587), followed by Denny Hamlin (182.340) and Ryan Newman (182.254). Last year’s Quaker State 400 winner Brad Keselowski will start eighth tonight after posting a qualifying lap of 182.192 mph. Brian Vickers was the last driver to bypass the old track record, posting a lap of 181.922 mph for the ninth position.
Juan Montoya rounded out the top 10 with a lap of 181.720 mph.
Penske Racing’s Joey Logano, who has won three NASCAR Nationwide Series races at Kentucky, qualified 11th in 181.708 mph. Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon posted the 12th-fastest lap in 181.653.
Martin Truex Jr., last week’s winner at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, had the 19th-quickest lap in 180.832 mph. Columbus resident and three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart was 25th with a lap of 179.964 mph.
Danica Patrick, who drives one of Stewart’s three Chevrolets at Stewart-Haas Racing, qualified 29th with a speed of 178.944. Earlier on Friday, Patrick responded to comments from former Sprint Cup driver and current TNT NASCAR analyst Kyle Petty, who stated this week on the Speed Network that Patrick “was not a race car driver.”
“I really don’t care,” Patrick responded during a press conference before qualifying. “It’s true that there are plenty of people who say bad things about me. I read them. People want me to die. But at the end of the day, you get over that stuff and trust yourself that you are doing a good job.”