Tony Stewart sets fastest qualifying speed ever on 1.5-mile track (200.111 mph), but Matt Kenseth wins pole at Texas

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Sorry, but we can’t avoid saying this: Tony Stewart lived up to his nickname and was smokin’ during Friday’s qualifying session for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Stewart became the first driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup history to top 200 mph on a 1.5-mile track in qualifying, and set the TMS track record in the process, with an eye-popping speed of 200.111 mph.

“It looked pretty fast,” Stewart chuckled over his team radio after completing his lap.

Later, while being interviewed by ESPN, Stewart admitted the significance of his mark:

“It’s always cool to be the first guy to be able to do anything, so to be the first to run 200 mph average on a mile-and-a-half is pretty cool,” Stewart said.

It became the fourth qualifying lap record over 200 mph in NASCAR history, the others coming at larger tracks: Talladega (2.66 miles), Daytona (2.5 miles) and Michigan (2 miles).

It was also the 22nd new track record set in the first 34 races this season.

Stewart thought his first qualifying lap might have been even faster.

“It was going to be a big monster lap in the first round … if I didn’t have to lift coming out of (turn) four,” Stewart said. “But that’s not the one that pays. We hit it in the second round, but I missed it in the third round, so my fault.”

Unfortunately for Stewart, who sat on the pole at TMS in the April spring race there earlier this year, that 200-plus mph run came in the second of the three qualifying sessions and he did not ultimately capture the pole for Sunday’s race.

That honor went to Matt Kenseth, who had the best overall lap in the third and final qualifying round, earning his 13th career pole – on Halloween, no less – with a speed of 199.299 mph.

“I was satisfied with it,” Kenseth said. “This is the best driving car we’ve had at a mile and a half all year by far.

“It was all I wanted. I’m surprised and happy that we’re on the pole.”

Going back to Stewart, he led a Stewart-Haas Racing onslaught that grabbed the fourth through sixth places in the final qualifying finishing order. Teammates Kurt Busch (fourth) and Kevin Harvick (fifth), will start ahead of Stewart, who will start sixth. The other SHR driver, Danica Patrick, will start 27th.

Of the eight drivers still remaining in the Eliminator Round, six qualified in the top 12: Kenseth, Jeff Gordon (2nd), Kevin Harvick (5th), Ryan Newman (7th), Joey Logano (10th) and Carl Edwards (11th).

But two drivers may not necessarily be happy with their qualifying runs.

Denny Hamlin, currently ranked fifth in the Sprint Cup standings, will start 20th, while Brad Keselowski, who is ranked seventh of the eight remaining Eliminator Round drivers, will start 26th.

Here’s the starting grid for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500:

Row 1: Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon
Row 2: Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch
Row 3: Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart
Row 4: Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 5: Kyle Busch, Joey Logano

Row 6: Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Row 7: Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne
Row 8: Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose
Row. 9: Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Row 10: Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin
Row 11: Jamie McMurray, Aric Almirola
Row 12: AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer
Row 13: Trevor Bayne, Brad Keselowski
Row 14: Danica Patrick, Michael McDowell

Row 15: Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier
Row 16: David Gilliland, Reed Sorenson
Row 17: Michael Annett, Landon Cassill
Row 18: Alex Bowman, Josh Wise
Row 19: David Ragan, Casey Mears

Row 20: JJ Yeley, Cole Whitt
Row 21: Brett Moffitt, Timmy Hill
Row 22: Joey Gase

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Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?