Kyle Busch takes first career pole at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin also on front row

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It will be a Joe Gibbs Racing front row to start Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

And while Denny Hamlin – who broke the track’s speed and one-lap elapsed time records earlier in the day in practice – is one of those two JGR drivers on the front row, it will not be on the pole.

Last week’s race winner at California, Kyle Busch, continued his momentum by winning the pole for the first time in his career at the .526-mile bullring in southern Virginia.

“What do you know? It’s Martinsville and we get to start on the pole, so it’s pretty cool,” Busch said. “There’s always a first for everything, I guess. This is pretty neat.

“Short tracks, our cars have already been great. … It’s fun to start up front. It makes things a lot easier, that’s for sure.”

It was Busch’s first pole since at Daytona last July.

Busch is still seeking his first career Sprint Cup win at Martinsville.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon lead all active drivers in Martinsville wins with eight apiece.

Conversely, Hamlin was going for his fourth career pole at Martinsville, where he is a four-time winner.

“We were just too loose really in both runs,” Hamlin said. “I felt like the track was a little green when we went out the first time and maybe used up a little bit more tire.

“Overall, it’s still a solid day for us. Second starting spot is going to give us a good pit stall, which is important here. We’re pretty pleased with how our weekend started.”

Hamlin is hoping to tweak the balance on his car a bit during Saturday’s final practice, but weather could be an impediment. Showers are predicted for part of Saturday, especially in the morning, which is also when the final Sprint Cup practice is scheduled.

“Tomorrow’s going to be frantic,” Hamlin said of Saturday’s practice and the prospect of rain. “Hopefully, we get it in.”

Still, even though he will start second, Hamlin likes his overall package nonetheless.

“It’s got good speed,” Hamlin said of his No. 11 FedEx Toyota. “(Saturday) our main focus will be keeping the tires on it as long as we can without giving up too much center turn. It’s a tough balance.”

Joey Logano qualified third, followed by eight-time Martinsville winners Jimmie Johnson (fourth) and Jeff Gordon (fifth), followed by Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, current Sprint Cup points leader Carl Edwards in eighth and Jamie McMurray.

Also of note was the performance of Danica Patrick, who earned her career-best Sprint Cup starting spot on a non-restrictor plate track.

Patrick qualified a solid 10th at Martinsville, her second career top-10 starting spot. She sat on the pole in the 2013 Daytona 500, a restrictor plate track.

Here’s how the field for Sunday’s STP 500 stacks up at Martinsville Speedway:

1 Kyle Busch 99.674 mph

2 Denny Hamlin 99.548

3 Joey Logano 99.428

4 Jimmie Johnson 99.178

5 Jeff Gordon 99.048

6 Matt Kenseth 99.048

7 Tony Stewart 98.883

8 Carl Edwards 98.846

9 Jamie McMurray 98.625

10 Danica Patrick 98.165

11 Greg Biffle 97.764

12 Clint Bowyer 97.382

 

13 Brian Vickers 98.965

14 Brad Keselowski 98.929

15 AJ Allmendinger 98.888

16 Ryan Newman 98.877

17 Marcos Ambrose 98.712

18 Kevin Harvick 98.708

19 Alex Bowman 98.661

20 Aric Almirola 98.625

21 Paul Menard 98.610

22 Kurt Busch 98.610

23 Casey Mears 98.599

24 David Ragan 98.599

25 Justin Allgaier 98.430

26 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 98.379

27 Kasey Kahne 98.359

28 Kyle Larson 98.333

29 Travis Kvapil 98.246

30 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 98.206

 

31 Martin Truex Jr. 98.200

32 Michael McDowell 98.002

33 Josh Wise 97.957

34 Austin Dillon 97.886

35 Cole Whitt 97.802

36 Landon Cassill 97.759

37 David Stremme 97.684

38 Ryan Truex 97.598

39 David Gilliland 97.458

40 Michael Annett 97.217

41 Parker Kligerman 97.078

42 Reed Sorenson 97.053

43 Joe Nemechek 96.332

Failed to qualify: David Reutimann

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Penske: No room for Patrick in Indy 500 lineup. Ganassi? OK

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Roger Penske has no room in his Indianapolis 500 lineup for Danica Patrick.

“The Captain” has a hunch where Patrick’s Indy comeback will take her in May – with Chip Ganassi.

“I sent him a note and said, `Congratulations. Danica better be driving your car at Indy because unfortunately she’s not driving for us,”‘ Penske said, laughing.

The 35-year-old Patrick said this week she will race only in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 next year and then she will walk away from racing. Patrick is the only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick ran the Indy 500 from 2005 through 2011. Her highest finish was third in 2009, and she was the first woman to lead laps in the race when she paced the field for 19 trips around the Brickyard as a rookie.

Penske has a full field for Indy with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden racing as fulltime entries and three-time winner Helio Castroneves returns on a one-shot deal to try and win a fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing is the likely ride at Indy. Ganassi has room to field additional cars – he’s scaling down from four full-time cars to two next year – and would give Patrick a car capable of winning. Ganassi said Friday he has met with Patrick and called her “Danica Double” a great idea.

Penske said Patrick and Ganassi, who has Ed Jones and IndyCar great Scott Dixon in his lineup, would be a perfect pair.

“I think that’s a great seat for her,” Penske said Saturday. “That’s a great team. They’re the ones that’s always been competitive there. I take my hat off that she wants to continue to go back to open wheel. That’s going to be terrific for the sport and there’s going to be a lot of interest around the country.”

Patrick was highly marketable early in her career even though wins were rare. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, but finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan. Patrick never scored a top-five finish in NASCAR and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.

Penske, a 16-time winner as a car owner of the Indy 500, said Patrick would return to IndyCar a better driver.

“I think she’s going to come back to IndyCar a lot tougher having run in NASCAR,” he said. “I think she’s going to be someone that, in a good car, is going to pick it up. She’s got plenty of time to practice.”

Team Penske won the owner championship Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500, said the sport would welcome back Patrick.

“She’s probably going to have a better shot at Indy because of what she’s done the last five years,” Hornish said.

Patrick has not revealed the team she’ll race for but surely a package deal with the same team and same sponsor for the biggest races in motorsports would make her again racing’s most marketable driver.

“I think it’s a great way for her to say, hey, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m going to go back to the two biggest races and see if I can’t get out on top,” Penske said.

Penske can win a NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup race.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org