FONTANA, Calif. – Nobody in the Nextel Cup Series has been hotter than Kurt Busch in recent weeks, so it was only fitting Friday that he won the pole for the Sharp Aquos 500 on The Face of the Sun.
The 2-mile track where Busch ran a lap a 182.399 mph to earn his first pole of the 2007 season is officially called California Speedway, but with temperatures approaching 110 degrees – and that’s fact, not exaggeration – it was about as hot as even longtime NASCAR veterans could remember.
“The last time I remember a lot of heat like this we were at Talladega probably in the late '80s,” said Ricky Rudd, who will line up 38th for his 900th career Cup start. “I think five guys had their fire bottles (extinguishers) go off in their cars that day.
“They used to have a built-in thermostat and I think it was set at 150 degrees and I think four or five of them went off and about scared the drivers to death. They thought a bomb went off in their car. I was asking my crew chief today, ‘I know this is a stupid question, but do these bottles have thermostats in them now?’”
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The thermostat for the Inland Empire region of Southern California has been set on blast furnace for Labor Day weekend, with little moderation expected through Sunday.
The race, at least, will start in the late afternoon locally and continue until early evening. Several teams ran only a handful of laps in a midday practice because the track was so hot they wouldn’t get much information out of it.
“We’re seeing track temperatures almost 150 degrees and that’s unheard of,” said Jeff Gordon, who was 16th fastest in his No. 24 Chevrolet.
“You basically have about a half to three-quarters of a lap of good grip in the tires and then you really start sliding around.”
As well as things have been going for Busch lately, with dominant victories at Pocono and Michigan and seven straight finishes of 11th or better as he’s moved into 12th and the final spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, Friday was challenging even for him.
In addition to just trying not to burst into flames, Busch and his team led by crew chief Pat Tryson couldn’t figure out what their No. 2 Dodge wanted them to do it during practice. When the car felt loose, the team would check the weight on all four corners and the number would tell them it should be tight.
And vice versa.
“I really didn’t think we had a shot at the pole,” said Busch, who won the pole for both races here in 2006 but hadn’t won one anywhere since Martinsville last October. “We just kind of threw a setup at it. It was really interesting how today worked trying to get a read on the race track”
Busch went out just as a few clouds mercifully came over the track, and as the session continued it “cooled” off a few degrees more. Busch was worried that his lap time of 39.474 seconds wouldn’t hold up, and he was almost right as Jimmie Johnson ran just one one-thousandths of a second slower.
Johnson, who grew up maybe two hours south in El Cajon, Calif., spent much of this week there raising money for his charitable foundation, visiting his old high school and standing in against pitcher Jake Peavey in the San Diego bullpen as he hung out at the ball park with old pal Marcus Giles of the Padres.
“Where do you find one one-thousandth?” Johnson asked. “I just didn’t get the job done.”
Kasey Kahne was third fastest with Ryan Newman, Busch’s teammate at Penske Racing, was fourth. Kyle Busch was fifth with Elliott Sadler, Kahne’s teammate, sixth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., trying to sustain flagging hopes of making the Chase, will start seventh on Sunday. He’s 158 points behind Busch at the Chase cutoff line. Any driver who’s 162 or more points out of 12th after Sunday night’s race is mathematically eliminated as long as those in front of him start the 26th at Richmond next weekend.
Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10.
Team Red Bull teammates Brian Vickers and AJ Allmendinger will start 17th and 18th, respectively, as Toyota got six of its seven Camrys in the field to match its season’s high. Only Dale Jarrett failed to qualify in a Toyota.
Scott Riggs and Ward Burton also failed to make the 43-car field.