By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
FORT WORTH, Tex. – A driver without a signed contract for 2018 won the pole position for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN) with a record lap — giving a timely birthday present to his crew chief.
In the final round of Friday’s knockout qualifying session, Kurt Busch covered the 1.5-mile distance in 26.877 seconds (200.915 mph) to top the previous record lap of 200.111 mph posted by Tony Stewart in 2014.
In a third round that saw five drivers exceed Stewart’s record, Busch set the fastest qualifying lap ever recorded on a 1.5-mile intermediate speedway. The Coors Light Pole Award was Busch’s first of the season, second at Texas and the 22nd of his career.
Busch edged Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs driver Denny Hamlin (200.617 mph) by .040 seconds. Playoff driver Kevin Harvick (200.378 mph) will start third, followed by Erik Jones (200.326 mph) and Playoff driver Kyle Busch (200.252 mph).
“It’s something when you set a new qualifying record, and it’s above 200 mph on the scoring pylon,” Busch said. “I told a couple buddies that we were going to go above 200 mph today – and that’s average speed.
“When you have a car that goes that fast, it comes with a lot of hard work from (crew chief) Tony Gibson and the guys on this No. 41 car. It’s neat to have that feeling – you drive down into the corner and just mat the gas and have it stick.”
Busch had been fighting tight handling conditions in the final rounds of time trials this season. For the final round Busch asked Gibson, who turned 53 on Friday, to do everything he could to free up the chassis.
“We’ve struggled a little bit in the third round this year and this time around I said, ‘Throw everything at it.’”
Hamlin, who comes to Texas fresh from controversy at Martinsville, where he wrecked then-leader Chase Elliott with four laps left in last Sunday’s race, held the top starting spot until Busch made his run late in the final round.
“I thought it would definitely have a chance,” Hamlin said of his lap. “We improved with our time each round, and we were top five each round, as well. So I definitely thought once I ran it, it was going to be very close.
“Some of the guys that were up front, we dodged those bullets early in the third round, but the 41 (Busch) was the last one that I knew could give us trouble, and they got us right there off of Turn 4.”
Series leader Martin Truex Jr. qualified seventh, followed by fellow Playoff drivers Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.
Busch doesn’t have a contract for next season, though Stewart-Haas Racing has expressed a desire to re-sign him.
“No updates from me,” Busch said in response to a question about his 2018 status. “We’re in negotiations. Days like today help.”
Elliott, eighth in the series standings, will start deep in the field on Sunday, along with six other drivers whose cars failed to clear inspection in time to make a run in the first round of qualifying. Elliott is the only Playoff driver who failed to advance to the second round of knockout time trials.
The other seven Playoff drivers also advanced to the final round, ensuring Elliott will start the race in a Texas-sized hole as he tries to claw his way into the top four by the end of next Sunday’s race in Phoenix.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying – AAA Texas 500
1. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 200.915 mph.
2. (11) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 200.617 mph.
3. (4) Kevin Harvick (P), Ford, 200.378 mph.
4. (77) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 200.326 mph.
5. (18) Kyle Busch (P), Toyota, 200.252 mph.
6. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 199.593 mph.
7. (78) Martin Truex Jr. (P), Toyota, 199.431 mph.
8. (21) Ryan Blaney (P), Ford, 199.380 mph.
9. (48) Jimmie Johnson (P), Chevrolet, 198.727 mph.
10. (2) Brad Keselowski (P), Ford, 198.478 mph.
11. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 198.143 mph.
12. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 198.078 mph.
13. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 197.694 mph.
14. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 197.643 mph.
15. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 197.534 mph.
16. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 197.469 mph.
17. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 197.441 mph.
18. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 197.267 mph.
19. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 197.102 mph.
20. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 196.528 mph.
21. (27) Daniel Hemric(i), Chevrolet, 196.221 mph.
22. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 195.645 mph.
23. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 194.196 mph.
24. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 194.175 mph.
25. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 195.150 mph.
26. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 194.770 mph.
27. (13) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 193.924 mph.
28. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 193.903 mph.
29. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 191.877 mph.
30. (7) Joey Gase(i), Chevrolet, 188.042 mph.
31. (51) Ray Black II(i), Chevrolet, 187.104 mph.
32. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 187.007 mph.
33. (66) David Starr(i), Chevrolet, 181.794 mph.
34. (24) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
35. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
36. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 0.000 mph.
37. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 0.000 mph.
38. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.
39. (23) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 0.000 mph.
40. (83) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 0.000 mph.