As Brad Keselowski rejoiced, having captured the pole for Sunday’s Southern 500, a pair of NASCAR stars experienced rapidly dissimilar fortunes in qualifying Saturday at Darlington Raceway.
Keselowski’s speed of 178.874 bested Kurt Busch, who was fastest in the first two rounds of the three-round format. Defending race-winner Kevin Harvick qualified third, followed by Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon, the active track leader in victories who’s retiring at the end of the season.
Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch completed the top-10 qualifiers.
The pole was Keselowski’s first at Darlington, NASCAR’s oldest track that has hosted premier division races since 1950. The Southern 500 had been held on Labor Day weekend before the date was shifted elsewhere. Sunday’s race is the first on its traditional date since 2003.
“This is probably the biggest pole I have ever had, as far as what the track means,” Keselowski said. “I have always thought of Darlington as being one of the elite tracks in NASCAR. … This is a great accomplishment to me personally and it means a lot.”
Decidedly less enthusiastic were Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick, each of whom struggled and expressed their frustration afterward.
Earnhardt posted the 26th-fastest time, a continuation of a weekend where the No. 88 team hasn’t been able to give their driver the car he’d like. The 26th starting position equals Earnhardt’s worst of the season and follows a 20th qualifying effort in the previous race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
“I don’t know why the car didn’t drive good enough to run in the top 20 for qualifying,” Earnhardt said. “It damn well should have. We’ve got enough resources, enough people. There’s no reason that that car shouldn’t go out and be faster than that.
“We were awful when we showed up. We really didn’t get the car reasonable until the end of the practice (Friday). We were just way off. Car was plowing. I don’t think anybody liked the way their cars drove, but we were just slow, no speed, car was way too tight. We never really got it figured out. We got a little bit of direction at the end of practice. We just need another two hours practice.”
At least Earnhardt will not start the Southern 500 in a backup car, unlike Patrick.
Wanting Patrick to improve her time, crew chief Daniel Knost prompted her to make a third qualifying attempt in Round 1. But during the run Patrick got loose and hit the wall, causing substantial enough damage that she will have to start Sunday’s race in a backup car and drop to the rear of the field.
Afterward Patrick and Knost had an animated discussion on pit road that ended when a frustrated Patrick walked away.
“She felt like she wasn’t going to go faster and she didn’t necessarily want to go out (and make another attempt),” Stewart-Haas Racing competition director Greg Zipadelli said. “The crew chief felt like they don’t give up and needed to try it. They did and it bit them, but at the end of the day as a team they win together and they lose together.”
Travis Kvapil, Josh Wise and Timmy Hill failed to qualify.