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June 27, 2014

AUTO RACING: Penske sweeps front row for Quaker State 400

Keselowski wins pole with new track record

SPARTA, Ky. — It will be an all-Penske Racing front row for tonight’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

In the final session of Friday’s time trials at the 1 1/2 mile track, 2012 Quaker State 400 winner Brad Keselowski crushed the track record by more than fives miles per hour to win the pole with a lap of 188.791 mph. The previous mark was 183.636 mph set last year by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It was Keselowski’s third pole of the season, which is tied for the most poles in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2014 with Kevin Harvick. It was Keselowski’s first Sprint Cup pole at Kentucky.

“We’re right where we want to be,” Keselowski said. “Starting first is a great start, but it’s just that — a start. You still have to execute a race and by no means is it a guarantee for a win, so we’ll have to go out there and earn that Saturday. The last few years we’ve been awful in qualifying, so it’s the ying-yang. It’s about bouncing back and I’m proud of that.”

Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano, will start from the second spot after posting a lap of 187.175 mph in the final qualifying session.

Logano was the car to beat in the first two qualifying sessions, posting the fastest time in each one. He topped the first session at 185.893 mph and then did nearly two miles per hour faster in Session 2 with a lap of 187.611 mph.

Even though he was among the best in qualifying, Logano said it is a challenge posting a quick time on Kentucky’s extremely rough surface.

“It’s such a tricky track. If you miss your [racing] line by a foot, you hit the bump the wrong way and the next thing you know your car is pointed the wrong direction. But I think it’s fun,” Logano said.

The Penske Racing drivers continued to be two of the best qualifiers in the Sprint Cup Series this season. Logano posted his 14th top-10 start of the year, while it was Keselowski’s 13th.

Logano gives credit to the mechanics in the Penske Racing shop for building quick race cars.

“It’s not easy, but the guys have been building us fast race cars,” Logano said. “Our qualifying setups have obviously been pretty fast, and I think we’ve been just as good in the race. We’ve run up front at a lot of different race tracks and I feel like recently we got off the path a little bit on what we’ve been doing. We’re trying to get better and trying to learn things for the Chase [to the Sprint Cup].”

Starting third in tonight’s race will be four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. The current NASCAR point leader posted a speed of 186.832 mph in the final qualifying session to earn his best starting spot ever at Kentucky.

Gordon vaulted up to third in the final few minutes of qualifying for his ninth top-10 start in 2014.

“You never want to be satisfied unless you are on the pole or in Victory Lane. But this sort of feels like a victory for me because that first run was not pretty,” Gordon said. “We made some good adjustments. I’m really proud of [crew chief Alan Gustafson] and the guys on the adjustments they made.”

Denny Hamlin qualified fourth at 186.374 mph, while Harvick was fifth at 186.104 mph.

Kyle Larson was the fastest rookie qualifier with a lap of 186.034. Larson had the quickest lap in Friday’s first practice session at 183.549 mph.

Rounding out the top 10 in qualifying were South Bend native Ryan Newman (186.014 mph), Jamie McMurray (185.957), Kurt Busch (185.950) and former IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick (185.803).

Three-time Sprint Cup champion and Columbus native Tony Stewart will start 13th (185.854) in tonight’s race. Last year’s Quaker State 400 winner, Matt Kenseth, will begin the race alongside Stewart in 14th (185.714). Kyle Busch, who won the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011, qualified 18th (185.052).

Friday’s qualifying was a challenge for Earnhardt and fellow Hendrick Motorsports star Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson earned the 25th spot for tonight’s race with a lap of 183.661 mph. The six-time series champion posted that lap with 2 minutes left in the first qualifying session for the 24th position.

In the final seconds, Greg Biffle bumped Johnson out of the 24th spot with a lap of 183.711 mph. The top 24 qualifiers advanced to the second session.

Despite the subpar qualifying effort, Johnson heads into tonight’s race with lots of confidence. He will be vying for a series-high fourth victory this season.

“We didn’t get the lap that we needed out there and didn’t transfer,” Johnson said, “but I feel actually decent about our car in race trim. We put up a great two runs in the final practice session. We just couldn’t get out of our way in [qualifying] trim.”

Earnhardt qualified 29th at 182.803 mph after two mediocre practice sessions. In the first practice session, he posted the 14th fastest time and then was 19th in the final practice.

“We were slow in practice. We’ve been fighting the car all day and haven’t had any gains,” Earnhardt said. “We haven’t been able to figure out what we need to do. But we just haven’t had good speed.”

Tonight’s 267-lap race will start at 7:30 and will be televised by TNT. It will be the first time since 2001 that a Sprint Cup race has started less than 43 cars. Only 42 cars entered this year’s Quaker State 400.

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