SPARTA, KY. (AP) - The questions during NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying Friday were how many drivers would raise Kentucky Speedway’s record and by how much.
Minutes before, Johnson had a lap at 183.144 mph to hold off Ryan Newman (182.254). Earnhardt set the standard in the No. 88 Chevy soon after and survived several furious attempts to unseat him before coming away with his 12th career pole and first at Kentucky.
Carl Edwards (183.306 mph) eventually grabbed the outside front in the No. 99 Ford. Johnson settled for third with Kyle Busch (182.593) fourth in a Toyota.
Marcos Ambrose (182.587) qualified fifth in a Ford and will start alongside Denny Hamlin, whose No. 11 Toyota ran 182.340 mph. The final two over 182 mph were Newman and defending race winner and Cup champion Brad Keselowski (182.192).
“I thought we had a good car in practice,” Earnhardt said, “and we got some cloud cover. That gave us an opportunity to run a good lap.”
Drivers felt as if a track record was possible with NASCAR’s new Gen 6 car, even on Kentucky’s bumpy surface. Anticipation grew even more with cooler-than-expected temperatures and intermittent clouds, and several drivers gave chase to Johnson’s mark early in the session.
Johnson, the series points leader, promptly raised the bar higher with a speed that seemed to put the pole and the record out of reach even with two-thirds of qualifying remaining. Newman gave chase and briefly had the second spot before settling for a solid berth in the field.
“I feel good,” said Johnson, who checked his No. 48 Chevy for damage after hitting one of the truck’s bumps and going airborne. “I felt (turns) one and two went really well. (Turns) three and four, I thought maybe I could have been a little faster through there.”
Earnhardt, sixth after the final practice, soon grabbed his up-front view and the record as all the elements fell into place for his first pole since September at Richmond.
“The cloud cover at least gave us a bit of speed,” said Earnhardt, who joked that getting a haircut between practice and qualifying might have made him more aerodynamic as well. “Of course, cooler track temps gives the car more grip and we definitely had the better situation of anyone in practice with that scenario.
“There were some clouds in the qualifying session, but not quite the extent that we had. I did think the lap was really good.”