Darlington, SC – One day after testing an IndyCar at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kurt Busch set a new track qualifying record at Darlington Raceway to win the pole for Saturday night's Southern 500.
Busch, who is in his first full season as driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet, made a lap around Darlington's 1.366-mile "egg-shaped" oval at 181.918 mph, which surpassed the previous record of 181.254 mph, set by Kasey Kahne in 2011. He was the only driver to top the record.
Busch claimed his 16th career Sprint Cup Series pole but his first since June 2011 at Michigan. It's also his second pole at Darlington. He became the youngest pole winner here in September 2001 when he was 23 years old at the time.
"Wow, what an incredible lap," Busch said. "Just the way the team gave me the confidence when we first unloaded, they deserve all the credit. With the lineup of items that we had to go through today and the confidence they had in each of the changes they made, we gained speed.
"It just gave me the confidence to say, 'You know what, I'm going out there and I have a great qualifying draw. Let's just go out there and lay a lap and see if it sticks'."
Busch participated in a rookie orientation for this year's Indianapolis 500 on Thursday. He drove an Indy car for Andretti Autosport, running at speeds of up to 218 mph. The 2004 Sprint Cup champion is open to the idea of competing in the Indy 500 and the 600-mile NASCAR race at Charlotte, which run on the same day, but said it would not be this year. Indianapolis and Charlotte are scheduled for May 26.
"Running around at 218 (mph) is definitely faster than running around at a 181 average," Busch said.
Jimmie Johnson, who won last year's Southern 500 and gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup victory, qualified second, while Kurt's younger brother, Kyle Busch, took the third spot. Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top-five.
"It was a great lap," Johnson said. "We had some issues with our qualifying run in practice, but we got those under control. It was a really nice lap, so I'm thankful for that. It was a little frustrating for us as the second (and final) practice session wound down, but we got the car underneath me and got a great lap."
Denny Hamlin qualified sixth, followed by Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, who will make his 700th start in the series, Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin plans to run the whole 500-mile distance at Darlington after driving his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for just 25 laps in last Sunday's race at Talladega.
"I don't think there's any doubt we'll go the whole way," Hamlin said after practice. "I stayed in the car for about an hour and a half straight with no issues during practice. Nothing was uncomfortable, nothing hurt or nothing was sore, so I'm pretty comfortable I can make it the three or three and a half hours that it's going to take to run the race."
Kenseth enters this race without crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who is currently suspended from competition due to penalties assessed by NASCAR to Kenseth's team for an illegal engine used in his race-winning car last month at Kansas. On Wednesday, the National Stock Car Racing Appeals Panel significantly reduced JGR's penalties, including Ratcliff's suspension period being trimmed from six point races to only one (Darlington).
"I've got a really, really strong race team over there," Kenseth said. "I feel good about everybody and the job they do, but certainly Jason is the guy that makes it happen. I told him when it all happened I don't think I can get along without him, so I'll miss him, although I think they're really prepared, really ready for this, because they were kind of thinking it was probably coming. I'll be really thankful I have him back next week."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 16th. Defending series champion Brad Keselowski was 26th, and Danica Patrick placed 40th. Patrick will use her backup car for the race after wrecking her primary car in practice.
Keselowski and his Penske Racing teammate, Joey Logano, are without their crew chiefs at Darlington and Charlotte, as well as the next week's all-star event due to penalties their teams received for rules violations one month ago at Texas.
Kevin Buskirk is filling in for Paul Wolfe as Keselowski's crew chief, while Steve Reis is taking over the role for Todd Gordon as Logano's crew chief.
All 43 drivers who qualified made the starting field.