LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Brad Keselowski crashed the party at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, winning the pole for the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Keselowski broke Juan Pablo Montoya’s year-old qualifying record with a lap of 133.572 mph Friday to earn the top starting spot Sunday. The Penske Racing driver nudged championship contenders Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart, who qualified second and third for the first event in the 10-race Chase.
Keselowski, mired in a rough first season at NASCAR’s top level, is ranked 26th in the standings and not eligible to race for the title. Only the top 12 drivers race for the championship.
“I would love to be the spoiler of the Chase,” Keselowski said. “I would live for that moment.”
On Sunday, though, he’ll have to do his best to not become part of the Chase storylines. A win would be fabulous for NASCAR’s newest polarizing driver, but the aggressive driving he’s become notorious for would best be held back when it comes to the championship contenders.
As is, the bulk of them will have a ton of work to do just trying to catch Keselowski.
Only four Chase drivers qualified inside the top 10. Bowyer and Stewart will line their Chevrolets up right around Keselowski’s Dodge, while Kyle Busch will start ninth in a Toyota and Carl Edwards rolls out 10th in a Ford.
The rest are spread out across the field.
Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle grabbed the 12th through 14th positions, and Jeff Gordon qualified 17th. Denny Hamlin, the top seed in the Chase with a 60-point margin over half the field, qualified 22nd.
Then came the most startling statistic: Four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson qualified a career-worst 25th.
Johnson has never started lower than 23rd at New Hampshire, and Friday’s effort matched his lowest starting position of the season.
But he wasn’t the worst of the Chase drivers: Kevin Harvick, who led the points most of the season, qualified 27th and notoriously poor qualifier Matt Kenseth wrapped up the Chase drivers at 33rd.
Kenseth had a series of oil pressure problems all day in his Roush-Fenway Racing Ford, and New Hampshire has been his biggest concern of all the Chase tracks. He was an uncompetitive 17th here in June.
It’s setting it up for a stressful Saturday. Teams will have nearly two hours of track time to get their cars perfect for Sunday’s opener. Because of the seeding system, which ranks drivers based on bonus points they earned for winning during the “regular season,” there’s bound to be at least one driver who will have his championship chances derailed a mere one race into the playoffs.
Kurt Busch cited himself as the prime example of a driver who has had New Hampshire play a critical role in the final outcome.
“I won (the championship) in ’04 by winning this race, and I lost it in ’05 by being taken out on the third lap,” he said. “That whole Chase, we were digging out of a hole and when you dig out of a hole, you stretch yourself thin, gamble on a pit stop when you’re not supposed to. It’s tough. You get shot in the leg and now you’re dragging a limp leg the whole time.
“You’re hoping that the other guys end up getting shot in the leg and they come back to you and they’re easier to catch.”