Kyle Busch earns New Hampshire Sprint Cup pole, Jimmie Johnson starts 2nd; 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd also in

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Kyle Busch blistered the one-mile flat oval at New Hampshire Motor Speedway during Friday’s qualifying, being the only driver to exceed 138 mph to grab the pole for Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301.

Busch’s pole-winning speed was 138.130 mph at 27.574 seconds. It’s his 15th career Sprint Cup pole, his second career pole at NHMS and his second pole of 2014.

“I gave it everything I had,” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “I thought I was a little too tight, but I guess I was just driving through it enough that it was still carrying some good speed and I had the throttle down on both ends. I was thinking it was going to be a solid top-4, so I’m real proud of these guys on this (team).

“We didn’t unload great but made some good changes, some good ground today and hopefully we’ll do some more tomorrow.”

Busch finished second in both races at NHMS last season, including to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth in the the fall Chase race there.

Jimmie Johnson was second-fastest at 137.790 mph, followed by Denny Hamlin (137.081), Tony Stewart (137.076), Jamie McMurray (137.017) and Joey Logano (136.815).

“It’s tough to get a good lap around here,” Johnson said. “Of course we want to get the pole and want to be faster, but Kyle (Busch) found a little bit more out there than us. … This helps make the weekend so much easier to race with a good pit stall pick, track position and you can fine tune from here. Hopefully we can fine tune to make this a race-winning car.”

Seventh through 12th-fastest in qualifying were Brad Keselowski (136.805 mph), followed by Clint Bowyer (136.702), Martin Truex Jr. (136.629), Kasey Kahne (136.174), Jeff Gordon (136.058) and Kevin Harvick (135.912).

Notable items during the session:

* Joey Logano crashed in the first practice round and had to go to a backup car for Sunday’s race, but still managed to qualify sixth.

* Three of the top 10 qualifiers are still looking for their first win of the season: Tony Stewart (starts fourth), Clint Bowyer (eighth) and Kasey Kahne (10th). Also looking for his first win, after earning a series-high seven wins last season, is Matt Kenseth (qualified 15th).

* Morgan Shepherd, 72, qualified last and will take the green flag for Sunday’s race.

* Daytona winner Aric Almirola qualified 19th.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled in qualifying, the only Hendrick Motorsports driver who failed to make it in the top 11. Earnhardt will start Sunday’s race from the 28th position.

* Rookie Kyle Larson was among the fastest drivers in practice, but failed to advance to the second and final qualifying session. He’ll start 13th.

“A little bit disappointed,” Larson told Fox Sports 1. “Oh well, we tried hard. This car has speed in it. We were pretty fast in practice. All in all, it’s a successful day for us, except for not making the final round. But we can still win the race from 13th place.”

* Carl Edwards will start 14th, just barely missing the top 12 in qualifying.

“This place is deceptively difficult,” Edwards told Fox Sports 1. “It’s pretty tough. It’s a simple layout but your car just has to be perfect. It has to hit the seams just right, get off the brakes right, apply the throttle correctly. I guess a couple hundredths more and we’d have been in the final (qualifying) round.”

 

Here’s the starting grid for Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway:

Row 1 Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson

Row 2 Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart

Row 3 Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano

Row 4 Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer

Row 5 Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne

Row 6 Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick

Row 7 Kyle Larson, Carl Edwards

Row 8 Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard

Row 9 Brian Vickers, Kurt Busch

Row 10 Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger

Row 11 Marcos Ambrose, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Row 12 Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman

 

Row 13 Justin Allgaier, David Ragan

Row 14 Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Row 15 Danica Patrick, Jeff Burton

Row 16 Casey Mears, Josh Wise

Row 17 David Gilliland, Landon Cassill

Row 18 Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman

Row 19 Reed Sorenson, Ryan Truex

Row 20 Michael Annett, Eddie McDonald

Row 21 Mike Bliss, Timmy Hill

Row 22 Morgan Shepherd

Did not qualify: none

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NHRA: Antron Brown on verge of earning 50th career Top Fuel win this weekend at Phoenix

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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When you’re used to winning championships – like three in the previous five seasons – any other season finish is disappointing.

That’s kind of how NHRA Top Fuel dragster driver Antron Brown looked at his fourth-place showing in the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

“At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season last year and made it to 10 final rounds,” Brown said. “But we got into the Countdown (NHRA’s six-race playoffs) and our timing was off.

“We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better. This is a new beginning for us and it’s going to be fun and exciting and we’re coming after them.”

Antron Brown hugs the NHRA Top Fuel championship trophy after winning it in 2016. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Brown had a good start to 2018, reaching the semifinals before losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“We had a great performance at Pomona and I couldn’t be more proud of what our Matco/Toyota guys did,” Brown said. “Now we are going to Phoenix where we’ve won three times (2009, 2012 and 2014, and was runner-up in 2011) and we’ll just try to hit it hard and get a fourth.”

Next up on the NHRA 24-race national event circuit is the second race of the season, this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona).

Brown has definite plans to make it four wins in Phoenix. And if he does that Sunday, he’ll set a significant career milestone: it would be his 50th career win driving a Top Fueler and the 66th win overall (he won 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle before shifting from two to four wheels).

In so doing, Brown would become only the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to hit the 50-win mark. The others are Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62) and Joe Amato (52).

This will be the second time Brown has been racing in Phoenix this month. He was part of the preseason test there for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock cars a week before the season began.

“Testing went really well there,” said Brown, leaving him optimistic that he can reach victory circle once again. “I love going back to Phoenix.”

Brown has been the most dominant driver in NHRA Top Fuel competition since 2012, winning more than twice the number of races (34) than the next most successful Top Fuel driver (16 by Schumacher) in that time period.

He also has a 71 percent overall win percentage, which exceeds both eight-time Top Fuel champ Schumacher and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

“I’m just pumped up, feeling like we’ve got some unfinished business from last year,” Brown said. “We had a good outing but didn’t close the deal, so this year, we’re looking forward to getting back there and getting off to a great start.”

NOTES: Brown will serve as honorary pace car driver for the March 4th Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by teammates Matt Hagan and Leah Pritchett in a weekend full of activities that they’ll all be involved in.

“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “It’s going to be my first experience as a pace car driver, and I’m just super stoked to go out there and drive the Camry pace car for Pennzoil and start those NASCAR boys off the right way. Throttle down, pedal to the metal. I just want them to get off to a great start.”

Brown has won four times at The Strip, the drag strip adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s an honor to be out there with such talented drivers, and I know I’m going to really enjoy watching our NASCAR counterparts.”

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