By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Running the fastest lap of the day when it counted most, Kyle Busch paced a Joe Gibbs Racing sweep of the top three starting spots for Sunday’s Good Sam 500 at Phoenix International Raceway (on FOX at 3:30 p.m. ET).
Busch covered the one-mile distance in 26.014 seconds (138.387 mph) in Friday’s final round of knockout qualifying, a session interrupted by Jimmie Johnson’s hard wreck against the Turn 2 wall.
The Coors Light Pole Award was Busch’s first of the season (after an inspection failure cost him the top starting spot at Atlanta), his third at Phoenix and the 18th of his career.
“It was a good day,” Busch said. “Unloading off the truck, everything seemed to go real well. I wasn’t sure about our speed in race trim, but then hopped over to qualifying trim and, for as not as good of a feel that the car had, we had some good speed, so that was definitely a plus—being able to have some good laps there and being able to run a really good lap there in the last session.”
Carl Edwards (137.515 mph) was second fastest in the final round, followed by JGR teammate Denny Hamlin (137.426 mph). Kurt Busch (137.394 mph), trying for his third straight pole, will start fourth in Sunday’s race.
Johnson earned the fifth position on the grid with his first lap in the final round, but the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion went to a backup car after his wreck and will drop to the rear of the field for the start of the race.
Johnson said he wasn’t sure what made his car drive straight into the Turn 2 wall.
“I don’t know for sure,” he said. “That’s why we have to go back to the truck and talk about things. But certainly, a lot of ‘straight’ in an area of the track that I didn’t need to have straight. So, we’ll have to get to the bottom of it and see what went on. But, just a really hard impact to the outside wall.
“I’m thankful that we have SAFER barriers and soft walls. I’m very disappointed, because we had a very fast race car, and the guys have been working so hard to get this thing tuned-up. Thankfully, we have tomorrow to work on the back-up car and try to get it up to speed and get it going, but this is certainly not what we wanted right now.”
Johnson’s crash wasn’t the only calamity in what was a bizarre qualifying session for Hendrick Motorsports. Kasey Kahne’s engine caught fire after the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet posted the third fastest lap in the opening round.
Forced to change engines after smoke spewed from the air cleaner for several minutes. Kahne will join Johnson at the rear of the field for the start of Sunday’s race.
The team surmised later that the engine went into EFI (electronic fuel injection) protection mode and blew up. Kahne was mystified by the problem but said the engine had continued to run after he attempted to shut it off.
Kevin Harvick, who has won three of the last four NASCAR Sprint Cup races at PIR, will have to charge from mid-pack after qualifying 18th on Friday.
“We’ve just been off in qualifying every week so far,” Harvick said. “Just not hitting the balance from practice to qualifying.”