RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Matt Kenseth ran a fast lap at 122.421 mph Friday and won the pole at Richmond Raceway.
The pole for the race Saturday night is the 20th of Kenseth’s career and comes in the last race to make the 16-driver NASCAR playoffs that begin next week in Chicago. Kenseth is in a precarious spot in the standings. He will start the race 15th in playoff points, but without the victory that would guarantee him a playoff spot.
It also comes with his future uncertain. Joe Gibbs Racing decided not to renew his contract for next season, and Kenseth has not signed with any other team. He declined after qualifying, accompanied by his three young daughters, to discuss his plans or intentions.
Kenseth will start the race two points behind Chase Elliott and one point ahead of Jamie McMurray for the final three spots and, with 13 drivers winning races this season, that gives them the next three spots based on the point standings.
Denny Hamlin will start on the outside of the front row after a top speed of 122.277 mph, with Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson in the second row. Martin Truex Jr., who clinched the regular-season title last weekend at Darlington, and Kevin Harvick are in the third row, followed by Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Elliott and Erik Jones.
Kenseth said he was happy with his first two qualifying run, but unsure after the third round.
“I didn’t think I was going to have enough speed. I didn’t think I was fast enough,” Kenseth said.
Kenseth also started on the pole when the series visited the 0.75-mile oval in April, and led 164 laps before coming up short as Joey Logano won. But the 2003 series champion has been coming on strong of late after what he called a slow start to the season — he’s had four top five and two top 10 finishes in the last seven races.
“We’ve been up there in the mix. We just haven’t been able to get it to go our way,” he said.
Hamlin expects Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray to run close together on Saturday night.
“I suspect everyone will be bringing their best and then some,” he said, “but ultimately, you got what you got and you can only do so much with it. I think they handle pressure fine. Matt’s in a good position.”
Jones earned the No. 10 starting spot despite being forced to sit out the first hour of happy hour practice because of infractions at Darlington Raceway.
Among other drivers needing to win the race to ensure a playoff spot, Joey Logano will start 12th, Clint Bowyer 13th, Daniel Saurez 16th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. 21st.
More AP racing: http://racing.ap.org
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