By Dan Gelston
LOUDON, N.H.: Brad Keselowski is back on top of NASCAR.
Well, for a race, at least.
But he’s quickly running out of time to make it back to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship and defend his series championship.
His first pole of the season might give his season the boost he needs to become a contender. Keselowski turned a lap of 135.922 mph on Friday to set a track record at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Keselowski won only his third career pole and first since 2011. With eight races left until the 12-driver Chase field is set, Keselowski is winless and sitting in an uncomfortable 13th place in the points standings.
“There is a sense of urgency but not a sense of panic,” Keselowski said. “I think there is a strong difference between the two. We are eager to get going, we are hungry and feel like we can do it but I don’t feel a sense of panic. There are still two months of racing essentially to get into the Chase.”
Keselowski led a fast day at the track as nine drivers topped the previous track record held by Ryan Newman, who went 135.232 in 2011.
Ten drivers topped that lap until points leader Jimmie Johnson’s second-fastest qualifying time was scrapped after his car failed inspection. His No. 48 Chevrolet, which had two issues in the pre-qualifying inspection, failed after his attempt because both sides of the front were too low. He’ll start in the rear in 43rd.
“We were able to get the car right,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “just not exactly right.”
Johnson will actually start behind 71-year-old Morgan Shepherd. Shepherd will become the oldest driver to start a NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
Shepherd, who went only 128.290 in qualifying, made his Cup debut in 1970 and won four times in NASCAR’s top series. He finished as high as fifth in the final standings in 1990 and hasn’t started a race since 2006.
Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon had no problem with Shepherd competing Sunday.
“I think that’s quite an accomplishment,” Gordon said. “We talk about how amazing it is to see Mark Martin out there being competitive over 50 years old, but to just go out there and do what he does as far as Morgan is concerned at 71, that’s amazing.”
Jim Fitzgerald was 65 years, 6 months and 20 days when he raced in 1987 at Riverside International Raceway.
“At some point, I think you just have to trust that he knows what he can do and what he can’t do,” Keselowski said.
Kurt Busch will now join Keselowski on the front row. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and Gordon round out the top five. Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, and Jeff Burton all topped Newman’s record.
Keselowski won five races this season but lost his consistency this season in the No. 2 Ford. He has three consecutive finishes of 21st or worse and only one top-10 finish in his last 10 races.
Whatever worked for Keselowski last season is gone. His team has been in a tailspin since a failed April inspection in Texas after NASCAR confiscated parts in the rear suspensions of his Ford.
Keselowski knows a win or two can propel him back into the Chase and keep alive his bid for a second title in a row.
“I still have the same goal and that is to continue to be a winner and that is what fuels me inside,” he said. “The competitive fire that burns inside of me is still there whether I was a champion or not. I probably have it with a little bit more confidence and I believe in myself and those around me a little stronger because of the championship.”
The long-expected Stewart-Haas Racing shakeup was finalized Friday. Kevin Harvick and his Budweiser sponsorship will join SHR teammates Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick in 2014. Newman is out of the New Hampshire record book — and a job at SHR.