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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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.