In the sometimes topsy-turvy world of Nextel Cup racing, rarely do things turn out as closely to how they’re expected to as they did in Bank of America 500 qualifying at Lowe’s Motor Speedway Thursday night.
Ryan Newman, for instance, won the pole with a lap at 189.394 mph, completing a sweep of poles in points races at the 1.5-mile track this year. Saturday night’s race will be Newman’s 14th career Charlotte start, and it will be the seventh time he’ll start first here.
Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who are first and second in the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings, were fast, too. Johnson ran 188.990 mph and will start on the outside of Row 1, right in front of Gordon, who’s leading Johnson by nine points in the championship race. Gordon starts fourth after his lap at 188.298 mph.
At a track where Dodges have had an outstanding qualifying record in recent years, three of them qualified in the top five. Newman was first, Bobby Labonte was third and Kasey Kahne was fifth.
“Qualifying tonight was just a matter of beating the 48 car,” Newman said, speaking of Johnson’s Chevrolet. “He had a fast car all day, but I had the advantage of knowing what he ran.”
That’s because Newman went out after Johnson did, and when he drove off Turn 4 toward the timing line Newman said he felt confident that he’d topped Johnson’s speed.
“You can have a really good sense of it,” Newman said. “You’re going fast enough here that you can feel the speed. ...I can’t exactly repeat the words I said coming off (Turn) 4, but they were all positive.”
Qualifying first, however, hasn’t necessarily been all positive for Newman.
This pole is his fifth this season and the 42nd of his career. But the past 29 times that he’s started first, Newman hasn’t won. He actually hasn’t won – no matter where he has started – in the past 75 races.
“I guess we’re just too good at qualifying,” said Newman, who has 12 career victories but none since a win at New Hampshire in September 2005.
“I guess you could say that I am not as good of a racer as I am a qualifier, but I don’t think that’s it. Some of it is racing luck and some of it is the emphasis we put on qualifying. ...Qualifying just seems to be my strong suit.”
Charlotte has been a strong suit for Johnson, who has won five times and hasn’t finished outside the top 10 here since he was 39th in his first career Cup start in this race six years ago.
Labonte’s lap at 188.363 mph was perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise. That matches his season’s best. He also started third at Dover in late May.
“This is the same car we had here last year and I don’t think it has been touched since,” Labonte said.
That’s not quite true though, since the No. 43 Dodge this week bears a pink paint scheme as part of a charity effort. “Our lap was great. It was an uneventful lap – the car stuck really good, it turned good. It was a good effort for our race team and a great start starting spot for us."
Jamie McMurray starts sixth in a Ford, followed by Chase drivers Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch. Casey Mears, who won the Coca-Cola 600 in May and comes in riding a streak of four-straight top-10 finsihes, starts ninth with Greg Biffle rounding out the top 10.
As for the remaining Chase drivers, Denny Hamlin starts 11th, Kyle Busch 13th, Carl Edwards 18th, Kevin Harvick 24th, Clint Bowyer 25th, Jeff Burton 27th, Tony Stewart 29th and Martin Truex Jr. 32nd.
Scott Riggs was fastest among the cars needing to qualify on speed, running 187.078 mph to earn the No. 14 starting spot.
Ward Burton, Michael Waltrip, David Reutimann, AJ Allmendinger, Bill Elliott, Jeremy Mayfield and John Andretti also made the cut.
Dale Jarrett, Joe Nemechek, Brian Vickers, Sam Hornish Jr., Carl Long and Kirk Shelmerdine failed to make the field.