Rookie Larson captures Sprint Cup pole at Pocono, sets track record
By Seth Livingstone
NASCAR Wire Service
LONG POND, Pa. – It’s all coming together for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Kyle Larson.
Larson, who turned 22 on Thursday, became the first product of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program to earn a Coors Light Pole Award on Friday, setting a Pocono Raceway track record of 183.438 mph in qualifying for Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400.
"I felt I hit all three corners about as good as I could and barely edged out Joey (Logano) – which feels great because he’s been fast in qualifying," said Larson, coming off consecutive top-10 finishes at New Hampshire (third) and Indianapolis (seventh).
"I had butterflies in that last round. I knew we had a shot at the pole after the second round, but I was nervous."
Larson’s effort wasn’t lost on Logano, who turned the fastest lap in each of the first two rounds of qualifying and finished just eight thousandths of a second slower in the deciding session.
“Kyle definitely laid down a good one because I thought my lap was damn near perfect and I got beat,” said Logano, who posted a top-10 qualifying effort for the 17th time in 21 races this season.
“Anytime you win the first two sessions, you feel pretty good about what you’re gonna have in the third and we ran the third session really hard. I felt like we nailed the setup, nailed the balance. I was pretty confident – really, really confident that that was going to be the pole.”
Although still seeking his first win, Larson’s recent performances have him in position to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He’s 12th in Sprint Cup points, three points ahead of Austin Dillon, his primary competition in the Rookie of the Year battle. Dillon, who won the season’s first pole at Daytona, qualified 11th on Friday.
After hitting a rough patch (three races with no better than a 28th-place finish), Larson believes he’s getting closer to claiming a checkered flag. He has nine top-10 finishes this season.
“I definitely think it’s realistic to think we could win (one of the upcoming races),” he said. “Maybe before the Chase starts. We’re getting better and better. Pocono’s a good track for me. Michigan is a good track for me. Then we go to Atlanta, where I’ve never raced a Cup car, but it’s a rough, worn-out surface that I feel will be another good track for me
“We hit a small string of tracks that I didn’t like. We had some bad luck. Now it seems we’re back on track and running in the top 10.”
The 2013 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year, Larson finished fifth in the June 8 Pocono 400, the first Cup race in which he led laps this season. He’s led laps in three of the ensuing six races.
And he’s paying dividends for Chip Ganassi Racing, which was known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing when it gave Larson the chance to become a developmental driver in 2012.
Sunday will actually be the second time Larson will start a Cup race from the pole. He earned that first starting position at Richmond International Raceway this season based on practice time when qualifying was rained out.
Ironically, it began raining at Pocono minutes after Larson locked in the GoBowling.com 400 pole.
“This time we had to beat the rain by a little bit and actually earn the pole,” he said.
Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick complete the front three rows on Sunday. Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Dillon and Kasey Kahne earned spots in the final round and will start in positions 7-12.
Denny Hamlin, driving without suspended crew chief Darian Grubb, was the odd man out in the second session, locking in to the 13th starting spot. Hamlin set the track record at Pocono on June 8 (181.415 mph).
Among others just missing the final round were Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, who will start in positions 14 through 17.