Truex earns Sprint Cup pole at Dover
Tony Stewart needs a tremendous rally at Dover to keep his perfect Chase season alive.
Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet has not performed like the car that romped to victories in the first two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He was horrible at practice and that carried over into Saturday's qualifying, where he turned a lap of 156.760 mph and will start the third Chase race 27 spots behind polesitter Martin Truex Jr.
Stewart's two wins have only given him a seven-point cushion over Kevin Harvick entering Sunday's race. With four Chase drivers starting in the top six at the concrete mile, this could be the race where the standings get rattled.
Stewart had little explanation for his struggles, other than saying his car was tight.
History shows all is not lost for Smoke. He started 27th in the second Dover race in 2000 and won. In the first Dover race in 2009, he finished second after starting 31st. If any driver knows how to work his way through traffic, it's Stewart.
He could run into Truex leading the way.
Truex returned to the site of his only career Cup win and turned a lap of 159.004 mph to win the pole at Dover International Speedway. He crashed the Chase party with his first pole of the season. He won his only career Cup race in 2007 at the Monster Mile.
''I love this place,'' Truex said. ''I feel like I understand what it takes to get around this place. I've just been fortunate enough to have good race cars here.''
Truex, of nearby Mayetta, N.J., has long considered Dover his home track. Truex, 18th in the points standings, has two of his six career poles at Dover.
Chase driver Kurt Busch was second. Paul Menard was third. Chase drivers Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson took the next three spots.
Like Stewart, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon also struggled during qualifying and starts 34th.
Denny Hamlin, all but out of contention, starts 11th. Brad Keselowski was 15th, Matt Kenseth 18th, Ryan Newman 20th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 21st, and Harvick starts 22nd.
Round 3 of the Chase promises to create some separation among the Chase contenders and the pretenders.
Gordon is in fifth place and a manageable 23 points behind Stewart. His poor start might not help him move up the standings.
Kurt Busch is 28 points out in ninth place. He's counting on his strong qualifying start to serve as a preview for what's ahead in the 400-mile race.
''We definitely look at where the Chase guys qualify,'' Busch said. ''You race your own race and let it pan out. You can't worry too early on in the race. Once you get to the final two pits stops, that's when you're looking at the other Chase guys.''
Truex hopes the Chase drivers are in his rearview mirror over the final laps, giving him something to feel good about in a mostly lost season. Truex, who has only eight top-10s this year, hasn't built off the promise he showed in 2007 when he won a race, posted 14 top-10s and made the Chase.
He hasn't finished better than 15th in the standings the last three years.
But if can take the checkered flag for Michael Waltrip Racing at any race this season, Truex is at the right track.
''I can't really put my finger on it,'' Truex said. ''Hopefully, we can get back to Victory Lane. It's been awhile. We've been close a bunch of times, but I feel good that we can get back there this weekend.''
Stewart has taken up residence in Victory Lane this Chase, with wins at Chicagoland Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
He's found it hard to keep it up at Dover. He was a miserable 41st in Friday's final practice session, topping out at 150.735 mph, and his team couldn't fix whatever ailed the No. 14 in time for qualifying.
''We'll see what happens tomorrow,'' Stewart said.
Sunday could be the perfect day for Johnson, the five-time defending champion, to position himself as a contender. He has six career victories on the concrete track and won the race here last September. Johnson has a 9.6 average finish in 19 career Cup starts at Dover.
He's stuck in an un-Johnson like 10th place 29 points behind Stewart.
''In these first two races, we've had much better cars than where we've finished and it just didn't work out for us,'' Johnson said. ''But that's racing. Anything can and will happen, and we've got to make sure it doesn't happen this weekend.''