Two days after NASCAR issued severe penalties to his team for an illegal engine used in last weekend's race at Kansas Speedway, Matt Kenseth won the pole for the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway.
Kenseth, who is in his first season as driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, broke a nine-year track qualifying record at Richmond on Friday with a lap at 130.334 mph. The previous record at this 0.75-mile racetrack was 129.983 mph, which was set by Brian Vickers in May 2004.
Not known in the past as a great qualifier, Kenseth earned his 10th pole in his 481th Sprint Cup Series start. He also won the pole one week ago at Kansas, but his pole victory there was stripped as part of NASCAR's penalties assessed to his team. Earlier this week, NASCAR discovered that one of the connecting rods in the engine used in Kenseth's Kansas race-winning car did not meet the minimum connecting rod weight.
"I'll tell you what, when you only win nine poles in 14 years, you're pretty darn fired up for all of them," said Kenseth, who will start on the pole for the first time in 27 races at Richmond. "It was one of our goals this weekend to come here and sit on the pole and kind of quiet down at least part of the noise. I'm glad we're able to accomplish that."
Kenseth and car owner Joe Gibbs were both penalized with a loss of 50 points. His crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, received a suspension of six points-paying races and the all-star event, a fine of $200,000 and probation for the remainder of the year. Kenseth said on Thursday the penalties were "grossly unfair."
Kenseth's pole at Richmond now gives him eligibility into the 2014 Sprint Unlimited (preseason, non-points race) at Daytona.
Since the competition debut of NASCAR's new Sprint Cup car, the Gen-6, at the start of the season, the track qualifying record has been broken at Bristol, Martinsville, Texas, Kansas and now Richmond.
"I never really thought we would have a shot at the pole after practice (earlier in the day)," Kenseth said. "We were really far off in practice. Jason (Ratcliff) and all of the guys got together and made a bunch of changes to the car. It was pretty darn right in qualifying."
Vickers, who continues to substitute for the injured Denny Hamlin in JGR's No. 11 Toyota, qualified on the outside pole with lap at 130.303 mph. His lap time was only 0.005 seconds behind Kenseth.
"It's a good start for us, but when you lose one by a couple of hundredths (of a second), you always re-run the lap in your mind and try to find out where you could've found a couple of hundredths somewhere," Vickers said. "And then to lose the track qualifying record on top of that is just kind of a double- whammy."
Jeff Gordon will start third, which is a rebounded from last week's qualifying at Kansas, where he crashed during his lap and had to start from the rear of the field in a backup car.
"I was thinking about how much I deserved to get the pole after starting 43rd last week at Kansas, but I guess after (Kenseth's) week, he deserved it a little bit more."
Kasey Kahne will share the second starting row with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Gordon, after qualifying fourth. Clint Bowyer took the fifth spot, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya and Joey Logano.
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Mark Martin completed the top-10. Busch, the driver of the No. 18 car for JGR, has won the last four spring races at Richmond.
The winners of the last three races -- Martinsville (Jimmie Johnson), Texas (Busch) and Kansas (Kenseth) -- have started on the pole, which is the first time that has happened since 1985. Kenseth has one Sprint Cup victory at Richmond, which came in September 2002.
Saturday's race at Richmond is scheduled to start just after 7:30 p.m. ET.