DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) Brad Keselowski won the pole for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday at Darlington Raceway, where he’ll start up front for the first time all season while searching for his first Southern 500 victory.
Keselowski turned a lap at 178.874 mph Saturday to earn his first pole of the season. The Team Penske driver put his Ford in the top starting spot five times last year, but this marks just his third front row starting spot of 2015.
”It’s probably the biggest pole I’ve ever had as far as what the track means,” Keselowski said. ”I’ve always thought of Darlington as one of the elite tracks.”
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Keselowski, who has two top-10s at Darlington but none since 2011, is hoping to use the Southern 500 as a springboard into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. It’s the penultimate race of the regular season, and Keselowski wants to reclaim some of the momentum he had last year when he rolled into the Chase as the top seed.
”We haven’t had to date as strong of a year as we had last year, and that wears on (the team),” he said. ”I’m just really pleased with today’s qualifying result and the momentum we’re carrying.”
But he wasn’t about to get too comfortable prior to the prestigious Sunday night race on one of the most challenging tracks on the NASCAR circuit.
With its quirky layout – the 1.366-mile layout is shaped like an egg instead of a symmetrical oval – puts most cars against the wall and struggling to avoid smacking it.
The track already has claimed its share of victims this weekend: Kyle Busch hit the wall in practice Friday and went to a backup car, Danica Patrick’s team was pulling out a backup after she hit the wall in qualifying, and Greg Biffle’s crew was fixing damage from Saturday.
”This track is so challenging as a race car driver, you make one mistake and you can take a fast race car and make it a ball of wrecked metal,” Keselowski said.
Patrick’s brush with the wall during qualifying created tension within her race team. She was seen in an animated discussion with crew chief Daniel Knost after her third run, and Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli said it was over her being sent out for that final run.
”She felt like she wasn’t going to go faster,” Zipadelli said. ”The team and the crew chief, they don’t give up and they wanted to try it, and it bit `em.”
She qualified 30th, but will have to drop to the back of the field at the start at a track where she can be lapped quickly.
”It’s definitely not the position we wanted to be in,” she said. ”But it’s a long race, so we’ll just try our best to gain track position every chance we get.”
Kurt Busch qualified second in a Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing, and was followed by teammate Kevin Harvick. Busch has qualified on the front row five times this year.
Busch, who narrowly lost a battle with Ricky Craven in 2003 that is considered one of the greatest Darlington finishes in history, believed Sunday will be interesting as drivers race under the lights for the Southern 500 trophy. He said to be successful, you must race the track.
”It could be compared to a ballet or to dancing and you don’t want to step on your partner’s toes,” Busch said. ”And ”The Lady in Black,”" she’ll spin you around or spit you out if you treat her the wrong way.
”That old cliche, race the race track, is what you have to do.”
Keselowski teammate Joey Logano was fourth, and Jeff Gordon, making his final start in the Southern 500, will start fifth. Logano has not had the same struggles as Keslowski this year: He’s started on the front row nine times and has three wins to Keselowski’s one.
”We were in the ballpark,” Logano said about his qualifying run. ”I think all the Team Penske cars were pretty fast. Brad obviously laid down a good one there at the end. He never slowed down ever and everyone else was slowing down each lap. It was interesting to see that. We were just a little free all of qualifying there. We just never jumped the fence with it.”
Darlington is celebrating the return of the Southern 500 to its traditional Labor Day weekend date with a retro-themed celebration. The weekend is being treated like its 1974, and 35 teams participated with throwback paint schemes and firesuits.
NASCAR is also using the low-downforce package that drivers prefer. It was used once before this season, to rave reviews from the competitors, at Kentucky and is being run this weekend as NASCAR analyzes potential rules packages for 2016.
Keselowski believes by taking away some downforce, the cars are more difficult to drive after several years of moving them toward making them easier to handle.
”I just really appreciate and respect that,” he said. ”I feel like whoever will win this race tomorrow, with more likelihood than previously, will have earned it.
”That is exactly why this is the right direction to go. I think you want to see people who end up in victory lane as the guys that earned the win. That is what true competition is. This rules package in a sense is an acknowledgement toward that.”