By Hank Kurz Jr.
MARTINSVILLE, Va.: Kyle Busch has seen it time and again at Martinsville Speedway.
Driving down pit road, heading back onto the track and in contention for the lead, Busch is used to seeing the pole-sitter gun the engine just off the jack and reassume the race lead.
Busch hopes to finally get to experience that for himself at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday after earning the pole on NASCAR’s smallest, tightest track for the first time in 19 career starts.
“I think that’s a great thing for us,” Busch said after winning the pole with a lap at 99.674 mph. “We get to pit there and of course drop the jack and just lunge across the line and be good.
“You need to still run up front all day. I think that it’s a great opportunity for us to pick up some spots say if we’re second, third, fourth, whatever, but you definitely always want to stay as close to the front as you can and try not to use that box as much as some guys have in the past.”
The pole is the 14th of Busch’s career.
In an interesting twist under NASCAR’s new knockout qualifying system, Busch won it while Joey Logano set a track record. That came at 100.201 mph during the first phase of two-session qualifying. All 44 cars competed in the 30-minute first session, and the top 12 moved into the 10-minute phase two.
Denny Hamlin earned the No. 2 starting spot with a lap at 99.548 mph, and will be followed on the starting grid by Logano and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. That puts Busch in some pretty accomplished company because Hamlin (4), Johnson and Gordon (8 each) have won a lot.
Busch, though, is coming off a victory last week at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and while he said it wasn’t dominating, it gave him hope that the Joe Gibbs Racing teams are coming together.
“It just seems to be working well right now, whatever is working,” he said.
Hamlin, who promised earlier in the day that he would win on Sunday, wasn’t in love with the outside starting spot because it can be tricky to get down to the bottom on restarts from the outside. He said nothing that happened in practice or qualifying made him change his view of how it can all unfold.
“I knew, even going into this weekend, I knew we were going to be really good contenders and be in the mix anyway,” he said. “I feel like after running a couple laps of practice I felt like this was a car that was capable of winning. I think with tire management being more of a factor than it’s ever been, it kind of lends itself to my driving style even more. For that reason I think we’ll be tough on Sunday.”
Logano has two top-10 finishes on the 0.526-mile oval, but none since 2010.
“So we’ve got a track record, but we don’t have a pole. How does that work?” he asked.
A solid pit position, he said, could help turns things around on Sunday.
“Obviously, the pit stall is very important, especially here. It’s a dangerous pit road, so you want to get a nice spot you can get in and out of, but obviously here it’s a slow pit road and you can make up a lot with timing lines on pit road,” he said.
Danica Patrick qualified 10th, her best starting spot in a race not held at Daytona. Her previous best starting position was 21st, accomplished twice last season.
Being told he couldn’t race last weekend because of an eye and vision problem will not make Hamlin less likely to seek the help of medical staffs available at NASCAR tracks every weekend, he said Friday.
Hamlin let Sam Hornish Jr. drive his car last weekend at Auto Club Speedway after he sought the assistance of the on-site medical team when his face swelled up and his vision blurred.
Initially thought to be a sinus infection, it turned out to be a small piece of metal in his eye, Hamlin said at Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin said he doesn’t blame the two doctors who examined him for failing to see the rusting metal, and it wasn’t until he saw an optometrist that it was discovered, removed, and he started feeling better.
“It took someone who was in the business of eyes to find it,” he said.
Hamlin was cleared to return this weekend and he took umbrage at the notion that his reputation might have been tarnished when he missed the race.
“People who think negatively of me or think that we side-stepped some sort of drug test or something is ridiculous,” he said, adding that he was making an effort not to get angry at the suggestion that something untoward was afoot. “I’m in one of the top-three cars in NASCAR. I would have to be an absolute moron — moron — to risk that.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who originally said he was concerned about Hamlin’s point of view about how he wound up being told he couldn’t race, said his concern wasn’t for the medical team’s competency, but for his fellow driver.
“I feel great about the process and what NASCAR has had in place for years,” Earnhardt said.