Last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth had a roller-coaster outing that saw him finish 13th after charging to the lead following an early crash that left his car’s rear end crumpled in.
The former Sprint Cup champion is surely hoping for a smoother time of things at Auto Club Speedway this weekend, and he may just have that after earning the 12th Cup pole of his career this afternoon ahead of Sunday’s Auto Club 400.
Kenseth logged a time of 38.438 seconds at 187.315 miles per hour in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. That was just enough to hold off Brad Keselowski, whose last-second attempt to take pole in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford missed by .043 of a second.
“We were pretty fast all three rounds and we were able to get three really clean laps, which is hard to do here,” Kenseth told MRN Radio.
“The tires drop off a lot, balance changes a little bit, and the track was changing as well. I’m proud of those guys. They gave me a great car today and I didn’t mess it up, so it turned out good.”
Meanwhile, Keselowski – the new Sprint Cup points leader – continued his impressive work in the knockout qualifying format with his fourth consecutive front row start.
As a low-grip race track with bumps and noticeable seams in the surface, Auto Club Speedway can be a tough track to get a hold of. But as Keselowski told MRN, drivers can’t afford to manage their rubber if they want to advance deeper into qualifying.
“You can’t save [tires] or you don’t get to the next round,” he said. “We weren’t where we wanted to be for the first two sessions, but we worked on it, kept going, and got it to where we wanted it to be. If we’d saved, we never would’ve made it that far.”
Five-time Fontana winner Jimmie Johnson will roll off from the inside of Row 2 alongside fellow California native Kevin Harvick. Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon make up Row 3, followed by Joey Logano and Marcos Ambrose in Row 4, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart in Row 5, and Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. in Row 6.
Denny Hamlin, who suffered a season-altering back injury in last spring’s race at Fontana, will start 13th and next to defending Auto Club 400 champion Kyle Busch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be right behind them in 15th at the drop of the green.
Other notables include: Kurt Busch in 17th, Jamie McMurray in 25th, Kasey Kahne in 26th, Danica Patrick in 27th, and Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton in 30th.
However, Menard will be in the No. 27 for Sunday’s race, although he’ll have to start at the rear of the field per NASCAR rules.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP QUALIFYING – AUTO CLUB 400
— 1. Matt Kenseth, 38.438 seconds/187.315 mph
2. Brad Keselowski
3. Jimmie Johnson
4. Kevin Harvick
5. Clint Bowyer
6. Jeff Gordon
7. Joey Logano
8. Marcos Ambrose
9. Carl Edwards
10. Tony Stewart
11. Kyle Larson
12. Martin Truex Jr. ELIMINATED IN ROUND TWO
13. Denny Hamlin
14. Kyle Busch
15. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
16. Ryan Newman
17. Kurt Busch
18. A.J. Allmendinger
19. Brian Vickers
20. Austin Dillon
21. Aric Almirola
22. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
23. Michael Annett
24. Greg Biffle ELIMINATED IN ROUND ONE
25. Jamie McMurray
26. Kasey Kahne
27. Danica Patrick
28. Justin Allgaier
29. David Gilliland
30. Matt Crafton
31. Casey Mears
32. Parker Kligerman
33. David Reutimann
34. Cole Whitt
35. Travis Kvapil
36. Reed Sorenson
37. Brian Scott
38. Josh Wise
39. Ryan Truex
40. Alex Bowman
41. David Ragan
42. Joe Nemechek
43. Landon Cassill
INDIANAPOLIS – Here’s a rundown of times and notes from Saturday at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test, as all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder had their first day of testing on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. A link to Friday’s notebook is here.
Drivers and teams alike have raved about the pace, and the rather loud sound, of the new Tatuus PM-18 Mazda. Reports from private testing had the new car rather close to Indy Lights pace at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and rather quicker than the old car at Road America. The first tangible evidence of that occurred today as all 10 of the Pro Mazda drivers who got representative laps (second BN Racing car of Leonard Hoogenboom ran only a few laps in session four after engine issues all day) supplanted the Pro Mazda lap record at IMS – 1:22.8800 by Pato O’Ward in 2016 – easily. Oliver Askew’s best time of 1:19.8920 in the second session was nearly a full three seconds quicker on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course.
Of the 11 Pro Mazda drivers that ran today, only Carlos Cunha, Robert Megennis, Nikita Lastochkin, Kris Wright and Sting Ray Robb ran in the 2017 season. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any or all five of them running full-time in 2018 for what would be each of their second seasons in the championship, as returning sophomores along with what should be a glut of strong rookies. Wright, who also races sports cars, looks poised to add a second program of some other series to a planned Pro Mazda full season.
Megennis is planning to test with other teams in the weeks to come, as he tests for Juncos this week after racing in USF2000 with Pelfrey the last two years. Both he and Robb missed portions of sessions today with new car issues.
Several Indy Lights spins and off-course excursions occurred but none produced any serious issues. Rinus Veekay and Anthony Martin were among those to test the course limits but kept on going unharmed. Veekay had a spin in session three on new tires, then promptly laid down the fastest lap of the session for Belardi later on.
His teammate this weekend, Nico Jamin, wound up with the fastest lap of the day in Indy Lights – although he wasn’t quickest in the cool evening session, the fourth of the day, when most of the field ran some sticker tire runs on their Cooper tires.
Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni (Juncos) and Anthony Martin (Andretti) made their Indy Lights test debuts. The perpetually happy Franzoni wrote on Instagram, “Awesome day!! We finished the day in P3!! The most import we learned a lot!! Tomorrow will be even better!!” Martin, meanwhile, said this: “It’s obviously a new car – bigger, faster and a lot more downforce, so I’m adapting to it and growing up to it nice and slowly. You don’t want to push yourself too early, so we’re working up to a few things. You have to do things a lot quicker and you have to use a lot more brake pressure.”
In USF2000, it was an excellent day at the office for Pabst Racing with Andres Gutierrez – who impressed in a pair of weekends with DE Force Racing this year – leading three of four sessions, while teammates Hunter McElrea and Lucas Kohl were also in the top-five. Pabst has been busy running cars in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda this weekend.
Beyond Pabst, Newman Wachs Racing also had an excellent day, mainly with sophomore Darren Keane and Californian rookie Jake Craig. Keane, who’s coached by Ozz Negri, led the fourth and final session of the day, and stands as a driver who could make a big leap forward in performance if he secures a full season in 2018.
Another team of note today was BN Racing, with Callan O’Keefe – Keane’s teammate when both drove for Team BENIK at this race weekend last May – second best on the day. The South African is poised to be that team’s lead driver next season. Teammates Elliott Finlayson and Zoey Edenholm are working towards seasons of their own; Finlayson having coming off a recent Super Sweep in SCCA Runoffs competition at IMS last month and Edenholm having only just graduated from karts into cars just this month.
While the USF2000 field was primarily rookie-dominated, two-year series veteran Aaron Telitz made a cameo return today with RJB Motorsports, and brought the ex-ArmsUp chassis its best pace yet in RJB’s hands as the Wisconsinite ran with Mirl Swan and Alex Barron’s crew support. Past RJB driver and two-time Team USA Scholarship, Michai Stephens, was also on site today.
Speaking of ArmsUp, its top rookie from 2017, Devin Wojcik was on hand today making the rounds as well, although wasn’t in a car. He looks to return to USF2000 for a second season in 2018.
USF2000 boasted some good diversity with Pabst, BN, Newman Wachs, Exclusive, Pelfrey, BENIK and RJB teams in the top 10 today, but there’s one notable omission: Cape Motorsports. The seven-time defending champions in the series are not testing in USF2000 this weekend, and has just a single Pro Mazda car on site for Oliver Askew. Granted, the team is also at Circuit of The Americas this weekend for F4 U.S. Championship action, where Kyle Kirkwood has taken that series’ championship. DE Force, which also ran in USF2000 this year, is also not here this weekend as it’s at COTA. ArmsUp isn’t here this weekend either.