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In a quest for his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Matt Kenseth — who trails Jimmie Johnson by 28 points entering Sunday's finale — will start from the pole in the Ford EcoBoost 400.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver sped to the front of the pack with a speed of 177.667 mph, notching his third Coors Light Pole Award of the season. Johnson, meanwhile, qualified seventh with a speed of 176.598 mph.
Kevin Harvick, the third and final driver still mathematically eligible to win the championship, also claimed a top-10 position. He'll come off the grid sixth following his speed of 176.665 mph. The Richard Childress Racing driver trails Johnson by 34 points.
Kurt Busch (177.445 mph) joins Kenseth on the front row after posting the second-fastest speed of the session. Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano (177.282) and Brad Keselowski (177.061) comprise the second row, and Denny Hamlin (176.846) will start fifth.
Behind Johnson, and rounding out the top 10, are Martin Truex Jr. (176.436) in eighth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (176.436) and Elliott Sadler (176.413).
The Sprint Cup Series has two practices slated for tomorrow, the first from noon-12:55 p.m. ET (televised on FOX Sports 2) and the final practice from 3-3:50 p.m. ET (FOX Sports 2).
The Ford EcoBoost 400 is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Sunday (ESPN).
MATT KENSETH, No. 20 Dollar General Toyota Camry, Joe Gibbs Racing Starting Position: 1st Were you surprised to earn the pole?
"I'm always surprised when we're on the pole and I haven't been surprised very many times in my career so qualifying is not usually my strong suit. Today, Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) had a plan and I didn't like it. He wanted to work on qualifying the whole time and I typically don't like that so I think I had him frustrated by the end of practice. I think I missed every corner of every mock-up run that I made. He did a really spectacular job today of helping me and pointing some things out and making adjustments to the car to make it do what we needed it to do. He did a really good job — way better job than I did today. He executed the plan good, made the right adjustments and we got the pole and the pit selection. It was obviously a successful start to our weekend."
Is earning the pole for this race a confidence boost for your team?
"For sure, I think more than moral probably a confidence booster. I think when your cars are fast and they do what you want, at least from my standpoint and I've been really spoiled all year, but when you go out and you have a couple runs and the car doesn't do what you want and it doesn't respond to changes and all that they you get frustrated. You try to act like you're not frustrated, but you start to get frustrated. When things go right it's the opposite. I think it lifts your spirits a little bit, it gives you more confidence and all that. For sure, the thing is Jimmie (Johnson) is so far ahead that even if he does have a problem we need to be in the front to be able to capitalize on that if he does have something go wrong. This is a good start to that and it will hopefully get us a bonus point right away. We have the best pit stall and that seems to be an advantage every week. I think it's important. We need to be up front and try to lead this thing as much as we can and be in that mix at the end."
Can you win the race on Sunday?
"I can't honestly answer that question until after practice is over tomorrow. I have never — just kind of who I am I guess, I don't know if I've ever got done and thought, 'Okay, I'm super confident we're going to go win the race.' These things are just too hard to win. I've got done with practice before and been like, yeah it drives as good as I think we can get it to drive and I think it's capable, but you never take these things for granted. You're never like, 'Yeah, we're going to do it.' You try to go in with the attitude that you can and you're capable and you have the equipment and all that stuff. Until we get in race trim tomorrow and get out there with all the rest of the car and see what this car drives like — this isn't one of the cars that we tested so we need to get back and see how it drives and see how it reacts to changes in race trim and things like that. Then I think you'll have a better idea."
Did your team need this after the race weekend in Phoenix?
"I really can't speak for my team members. I think they feel good about themselves and what we've accomplished this year and all that. Certainly, I think Phoenix takes a little bit of wind out of your sails. This season has been so good and we led a lot of the Chase and when you have a day like that and all of the sudden three weeks ago we're leading the points and now you go into the last race with a very slim shot at it and you need a lot of help to make it happen. Of course that's going to take a little wind out of your sails. I think coming back down here and sitting on the pole was a great confidence booster and I think everybody is motivated and everybody is fired up. It doesn't hurt — it always builds confidence when you run good."
How much has the Gen-6 car evolved this year?
"I don't think the car has really evolved at all because they really haven't made any rules changes. I think setups always change and you know the rules are so tight people still get on to something here and now everybody is trying to catch up and all of that kind of stuff. So, I don't know. There's some different things that we're doing with it than we were in the beginning of the year, but our stuff was just so fast right out of the gate. Our cars were really fast. JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) I think did an amazing job of getting the Gen-6 car ready and coming out of the gate really, really strong. We knew eventually they were going to catch up and typically that works in this sport. They pass you for a little while and then you try to hopefully get on the other side of that. I think you're always improving them, but I don't think the car itself has really changed that much but I think everybody certainly understands it better than they did six months ago."
How does it feel to get the pole for Sunday's race?
"Today was obviously a really successful day for us. I think we have a lot of work to do tomorrow to be sure we have what we need for Sunday. It's a place to start, it's always nice to get that first pit stall and hopefully get some bonus points early. All we can do is control the 20 — my team did a wonderful job with that today. My car was way better than I was all day so I was glad I could kind of get them a decent lap and get some of the speed out of the car."
Are you doing everything possible to gain maximum points?
"That's the start of it. Even though this is a really great track and it's really wide and there's a lot of grooves and you can really pass. It's hard to pass these days. Track position is really important — competition is at an all-time high and qualifying is important. You see when you get a good qualifying spot, if you don't have any problems or make any mistakes and you can keep that track position it just makes your day a little bit easier."
Do you believe you can win the championship?
"We can't really control what they (48 team) do and obviously they don't usually run 23rd or 24th without any problems. Really I think we just concentrate 100 percent on the 20 and try to do everything we can to go out there and run up front. Hopefully, have a shot to win the race and finish as high as we can so if they do have any problems we're there to capitalize on that. The 29 (Kevin Harvick) is right there as well so we're just going to approach it like any other race — go out there and race hard, hopefully be in the mix for a win and end the season on a high note."
How was your qualifying lap?
"I think I missed every corner in practice so I just kind of made sure that I didn't miss the corners and Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) made some good adjustments. The car was decent. Overall I feel like that was a successful lap and I'm really looking forward to getting into race trim tomorrow and trying to get that thing right for Sunday."
How important is a good starting position after having a disappointing day in Phoenix last Sunday?
"You know, it's important. It was obviously frustrating and it wasn't like how we ran pretty much anywhere at all year from start to finish so that was a frustrating race. Certainly we want to — no matter where everything ends up on Sunday we certainly want to end the season on a strong note and run strong in the way that we know that we can."
Is this a fun track to race on?
"The fun thing about this track is there's a lot of different grooves out there and you have to try to pick what's best for qualifying because a lot of times it's different from the race. I felt like it was a good, clean lap. I don't know where it's going to end up at the end of the day, but we've been getting some early draws lately. I know the tracks going to pick up. Really proud of that lap. I did a really poor job in practice and Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and all the guys made good adjustments and it drove pretty good right there."
Do you feel relief at this point?
"If I was in Jimmie's (Johnson) spot I would have a sense of relief you know. We certainly want to end the season on a strong note. Obviously, all three of us our ultimate goal is to try to win that championship. Who knows, anything can happen Sunday and we're going to push as hard as we can push. That was a huge improvement from practice."
What was changed on the car from practice to qualifying?
"I don't work on the car so you'll have to ask Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief). They made some good adjustments — I did a poor job in practice. I think I missed a corner on every single run I made. Feel like I got to where I needed to go and the car was way better than I was in practice. I feel like that was a good lap and I felt like there was some improvements to the handling. I don't think it was perfect — there was more out there."
Did the test session help improve your performance at Homestead?
"I wasn't really that thrilled with our test. We spent a day and a half off — not that it means a lot, but the last hour of the test I thought we hit it pretty good and we were running okay. I don't know I didn't really put a lot of stock in that. It was nice to get on the track and kind of be familiar and go through a lot of things so we had a lot of things we threw out. We had a lot of things we kept too. It was nice to test, but I don't know how good it was so I don't know."
Has your mile-and-a-half program been weaker than early in the season?
"I think we were third at Charlotte and fourth at Texas — I don't know what other mile-and-a-half we had lately, but that is still really good. The beginning of the year either Kyle (Busch) or I won four or five out of the first six of them or something like that, which is crazy. I think our stuff has been pretty competitive everywhere. Last week was last week, but other than that I feel like we've still been pretty good. Charlotte, I did a bad job qualifying and got us behind at Charlotte and Jimmie (Johnson) had us covered, but I had at least a second-place car at Charlotte the whole time which was good. Texas, we were really bad in the spring at Texas and I thought we were pretty competitive this time — that was a little better. That place was a struggle in the spring. I can't remember what other mile-and-a-halves we ran. Kansas I sped on pit road."
What is your focus during practice tomorrow?
"Just to get it driving good. I don't even really care what the lap times say — just so we can get it to do the things we want it to do. You can maneuver and you can change lanes, you can move down if you have to pass. Really just try to find that balance that I'm comfortable with — it stays on the tires good and has reasonable speed."
|1||20||Matt Kenseth||Toyota||Dollar General||177.667||30.394||Leader|
|2||78||Kurt Busch||Chevrolet||Furniture Row/Denver Mattress||177.445||30.432||-0.038|
|3||22||Joey Logano||Ford||Shell Pennzoil||177.282||30.460||-0.066|
|4||2||Brad Keselowski||Ford||Miller Lite||177.061||30.498||-0.104|
|5||11||Denny Hamlin||Toyota||FedEx Express||176.846||30.535||-0.141|
|8||56||Martin Truex Jr||Toyota||NAPA Auto Parts||176.436||30.606||-0.212|
|9||17||Ricky Stenhouse Jr||Ford||FORD ECO BOOST||176.436||30.606||-0.212|
|10||55||Elliott Sadler||Toyota||Aaron's Dream Machine||176.413||30.610||-0.216|
|12||27||Paul Menard||Chevrolet||Menards / Moen||176.355||30.620||-0.226|
|13||5||Kasey Kahne||Chevrolet||Farmers Insurance||176.304||30.629||-0.235|
|15||39||Ryan Newman||Chevrolet||Quicken Loans||175.730||30.729||-0.335|
|16||16||Greg Biffle||Ford||No. 16 3M Fan Appreciation Ford||175.690||30.736||-0.342|
|17||21||Trevor Bayne||Ford||Motorcraft / Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center||175.507||30.768||-0.374|
|19||43||Aric Almirola||Ford||Smithfield Foods||175.376||30.791||-0.397|
|21||88||Dale Earnhardt Jr||Chevrolet||National Gaurd||175.347||30.796||-0.402|
|22||14||Mark Martin||Chevrolet||Bass Pro Shops / Mobil 1||175.273||30.809||-0.415|
|24||10||Danica Patrick||Chevrolet||GoDaddy- It's Go Time||175.092||30.841||-0.447|
|25||15||Clint Bowyer||Toyota||5-Hour Energy||174.780||30.896||-0.502|
|26||24||Jeff Gordon||Chevrolet||Axalta Coating Systems||174.610||30.926||-0.532|
|27||42||Juan Pablo Montoya||Chevrolet||Target||174.537||30.939||-0.545|
|29||34||David Ragan||Ford||Taco Bell||174.317||30.978||-0.584|
|30||30||Parker Kligerman||Toyota||Lean 1-Swan Energy||173.171||31.183||-0.789|
|31||38||David Gilliland||Ford||Long John Silver's||173.099||31.196||-0.802|
|32||83||David Reutimann||Toyota||VooDoo BBQ & Grill||172.563||31.293||-0.899|
|33||93||Travis Kvapil||Toyota||Burger King-Dr. Pepper||172.287||31.343||-0.949|
|34||98||Michael McDowell||Ford||Phil Parsons Racing||172.260||31.348||-0.954|
|35||35||Josh Wise||Ford||MDS Transport||172.046||31.387||-0.993|
|36||47||AJ Allmendinger||Toyota||Scott "Win My Car"||171.734||31.444||-1.050|
|37||36||J.J. Yeley||Chevrolet||United Mining Equipment||171.717||31.447||-1.053|
|38||7||Dave Blaney||Chevrolet||Florida Lottery||170.891||31.599||-1.205|
|39||33||Landon Cassill||Chevrolet||Little Joe's Autos||170.481||31.675||-1.281|
|40||13||Casey Mears||Ford||No. 13 GEICO Ford Fusion||170.154||31.736||-1.342|
|41||32||Ken Schrader||Ford||Federated Auto Parts||170.122||31.742||-1.348|
|42||87||Joe Nemechek||Toyota||Royal Teak Collection||169.817||31.799||-1.405|
|43||40||Tony Raines||Chevrolet||Hillman Racing||167.183||32.300||-1.906|