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Matt Kenseth on the Southern 500 pole?! Wow...because when he qualifies well, he's usually a terror


Matt Kenseth suddenly a hot pick at Darlington (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Matt Kenseth upset Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman Friday evening to win the pole for Saturday night's Southern 500 (7:20 p.m. EDT), and Kenseth did it in record time – a blistering 179.514 mph, breaking teammate Greg Biffle's mark, set only last May.
   "Now when you're practicing in the middle of a day for a race that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to race that well at night, but this is the best-handling car-of-tomorrow I've ever had," Kenseth said.
   "This is the most confident I've ever been in a COT (car-of-tomorrow)."
   And remember this is the guy who won the Daytona 500 and the California 500 to open the season.
   "I hope we race good, because we worked on race setup all day, not qualifying," Kenseth said. "In fact I didn't think I had a serious shot at the pole.
   "But now I'm just glad it stopped raining and we got the opportunity to qualify.
   "I'm more confident now than I've been in a couple of months."
   Kenseth, except for a fifth at Texas, has struggled since his wins – a 43rd at Las Vegas, 12th at Atlanta, 33rd at Bristol, 23rd at Martinsville, 27th at Phoenix, 17th at Talladega, and 13th at Richmond. And Kenseth's qualifying record has been, well, atrocious: a third at Texas, but an average starting position of only 24th.
   "It really irks me that a guy who doesn't qualify well beat me," Newman, one of the sport's most noted qualifiers, said with a laugh. "And you tell Matt that."
   However all the ingredients are in place for a crashfest 500.
   "This is a nail-bitter, white-knuckle experience qualifying here," Gordon said, after watching teammate Jimmie Johnson crash. "Very rarely are my hands shaking when I get out of a car, but they were this time, and my heart was pounding. The edge is right there; you're right there on the edge.
   "The tire and this new surface, I don't know if there is any place the tour right now as edgy as this place was today."
   Johnson, uninjured, will have to start the race in a backup, and from the rear of the field.
   Johnson: "I was pretty loose. I didn't expect to be that loose.
   "Track temps were down, and (crew chief) Chad Knaus' final words were 'Go like hell,' and off I went…and didn't make it back.
   "Unfortunately, I tore up a race car. But we have great back-ups."
   This 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval was repaved last year, but drivers say the speeds get even faster the more rubber they lay down.
   And since most of the rubber that was laid down in morning practice was washed away in afternoon rain, that could mean a very, very fast 500 Saturday.
   And drivers seems fairly comfortable with things, considering the amazing speeds.
   "The track rubbered in a lot more than I thought it would, and as it got darker (with rubber) it got faster," Kenseth said. "This left-side tire seems to be a lot better than the one we had."


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