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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INDYCAR Preview: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

Photo: IndyCar
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Three consecutive race weekends in the month of April for the Verizon IndyCar Series come to a close this weekend with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the series’ ninth race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

IndyCar’s annual trek to the “Alabama Rollercoaster” – as Barber has been referred to in the past – began in 2010, and the venue has quickly become a favorite for teams, drivers, and fans, and while concerns existed that passing would prove too difficult prior to the first race in 2010, every race has featured more than its fair share of overtaking, and the track has seen thrilling late-race battles in each of the last three seasons.

Graham Rahal put on one of the greatest drives of his career to finish second here in 2015, passing Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves, and Scott Dixon in the final laps to do so, but he could not quite catch Josef Newgarden that day, with Newgarden taking his first career IndyCar win.

Rahal dueled Simon Pagenaud for the win in 2016, with Pagenaud getting the upperhand after Rahal damaged his front wing following contact with the lapped car of Jack Hawksworth.

And in 2017, Josef Newgarden benefited from teammate Will Power suffering a punctured tire to assume the lead late in the race, and held off Scott Dixon to take his first win for Team Penske.

In summary, Barber has developed a habit of creating late-race drama, and given how the first three races of the 2018 season have gone, it could easily happen again.

Key talking points ahead of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama are below.

Championship Picture Beginning to Take Shape

Alexander Rossi leads the championship three races into the 2018 season. Photo: IndyCar

Though it is admittedly very early in the season – only three of 17 races have been completed – the championship picture is beginning to come into focus, and Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach winner Alexander Rossi is currently at the head of the table.

The Andretti Autosport driver sits in the lead on 126 points, 22 ahead of of Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal sits third with 93 points, with Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais in fourth on 88 points. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe rounds out the Top 5, with 83 points through the first three races.

That’s five different teams represented in the Top 5 at the moment, and a few faces have emerged as potential favorites.

Points leader Rossi is the only driver to finish on the podium in each of the first three races, with finishes of 3-3-1.

Team Penske has had somewhat of a quiet start to 2018, though Newgarden did win the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway, and his results at St. Petersburg and Long Beach – seventh at both races – could have been much better if only a couple small things went differently.

Rahal has been a title contender in each of the last three seasons, even going into the 2015 season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma with a shot at the championship. And his 2018 season, highlighted by finishes of second at St. Petersburg and fifth at Long Beach, could be even better if not for miscues and contact in both races that hampered his efforts.

Throw in Bourdais and Hinchcliffe as well, who like Rahal, compete with smaller teams – Bourdais with Coyne in a venture with Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, and Hinchcliffe with SPM – and more legitimate players are emerging in the title hunt.

And with big names like Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud stumbling out of the gates so far – Dixon is sixth in the championship while Pagenaud sits 16th – there’s a lot of room for championship drama to develop in the coming races.

Will Power Seeks Barber Redemption

Will Power started on pole last year at Barber, led a race-high 60 laps, and looked set to take his third win at the Alabama road course before suffering a cut tire, and the Penske squad was left no choice but to bring Power’s No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet into the pits.

It was a heart-breaking result for a driver who, at the time, needed to right the ship after finishes of 19th and 14th to open the season.

One year later, Power again heads to Barber looking right the ship after a troublesome start to his season, with finishes of 10th and 22nd in the opening two races.

He took the first step by finishing second at Long Beach, and now looks to avenge last year’s Barber disappointment to get his first win of 2018.

“Long Beach was really great for the whole No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team after we finished second. It was our best finish so far this season, so it’s done a lot for team morale going into this weekend at Barber,” Power explained. “Road courses are always a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to racing one with the new car. My team has been really working hard over the past several weeks with back-to-back races and they have a really strong car ready to go. Barber is such a cool course and the fans there are always really excited to be there. It’s just a really fun event for everyone and I can’t wait to get on track.”

Power

Misc.

  • There have been five different winners at Barber: Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden, and Simon Pagenaud. Power, Hunter-Reay, and Newgarden are the only ones with multiple wins at Barber, though, with each sitting on two wins apiece.
  • Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal have also been successful at Barber. Rahal has two second place finishes, while Dixon has five. However, neither has been able to break through for a win, although that could easily change this weekend.
  • Marco Andretti sits tenth in the championship, with finishes of ninth and sixth the highlights of his early season. However, his race pace has been very impressive, and if he can get his qualifying up to a similar level, Andretti could be a darkhorse.
  • Ed Jones and Zach Veach look to build on finishes of third and fourth at Long Beach, their best results of the 2018 season.

The Final Word…

From Josef Newgarden, winner of the two of the last three races at Barber Motorsports Park, including last year:

“We had a decent finish at Long Beach but we’re definitely hungry for more. Barber is one of my favorite tracks we visit – not just because we’ve won there – but because it’s a cool track and it’s only a few hours away from where I grew up (in Nashville, Tennessee). That just makes it even more special when I’ve won there. Barber is going to be interesting since it’s the first time we’re racing the new car on a road course. I think it could lead to some really exciting racing for the great fans at Barber and the fans at home. The whole No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet team and I are ready to take the strong car we have ready for this weekend to the track and run a great race.”

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Josef Newgarden
2. Scott Dixon
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Helio Castroneves
5. Alexander Rossi
6. James Hinchcliffe
7. Tony Kanaan
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. Takuma Sato
10. Mikhail Aleshin

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power
2. Helio Castroneves
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Scott Dixon
5. Ryan Hunter-Reay
6. James Hinchcliffe

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