AVONDALE, Ariz. — Matt Kenseth had no idea his pole-winning run at Phoenix International Raceway could benefit his championship-contending teammate.
When he found out he had assisted Carl Edwards, Kenseth pretended it was all part of the plan.
“That was my plan. I thought, ‘Man, if we can sit on the pole, that will really help him,’” Kenseth laughed.
Kenseth turned a lap at 137.101 mph on Saturday to win his third pole of the season. It came in a late run, and separated title contenders Edwards and Tony Stewart on the grid.
Before Kenseth’s lap, the two were seventh and eighth on the qualifying list and in line to start side-by-side in Sunday’s race. But Edwards would have been on the outside, and new pavement at Phoenix has prevented the second line from adequately developing.
So when Kenseth wedged his way to the top of the board, Stewart dropped to eighth and Edwards to ninth. It means Stewart will start on the outside of the fourth row, and Edwards will line up on the inside of row five.
“I planned that. I am that good,” Kenseth claimed.
But he actually downplayed the significance of the starting spots of the two championship contenders. Edwards takes a three-point lead over Stewart into the penultimate event of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“The bottom is probably going to be an advantage to get started, but it is still 300 miles and I think at some point in the race every car is going to be in the top groove for a little bit,” Kenseth said.
AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose qualified second and third as Ford swept the top three spots. Mark Martin qualified fourth and Martin Truex Jr. was fifth, followed by Jamie McMurray and David Reutimann.
But the qualifying session was marked by drivers using strong adjectives in reference to the racing surface, was paved over the summer.
Ambrose said the slick track was “pretty sketchy” and Allmendinger said his lap “was insane.” Jeff Gordon, who won here in February, called the surface “treacherous” after qualifying 23rd.
But Stewart? He didn’t seem all that concerned.
“I didn’t think it was a big drama,” he said. “I am alright if it stays like this for the whole day.”
Well, Stewart, who normally heats up during the hot summer stretch of the schedule, prefers a slick track, right?
“Yeah, I love it,” he smiled.
It could be setting it up for a big Sunday for the two-time NASCAR champion, who already believes he’s got the advantage over Edwards this weekend because the race could come down to which drivers adapt faster to the new surface.
Edwards said after four hours of practice Friday that this race had been a concern.
“I have been a little nervous about coming here not knowing what the track is going to be like and how we are going to stack up,” Edwards said. “But practice went really well and we are really fast. I am excited about it.”
Edwards also got the benefit of extra track time in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race. Stewart was a mere observer, left to watch on TV to see how the racing lines developed.
Both drivers, though, believe they are in control of their own destiny.
Stewart, winner of four Chase races, including two straight, has been operating as if he’s on a mission and can’t be stopped in his bid to become the first driver-owner since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 to win the title.
Edwards, who has been the points leader for most of the season, thinks he needs only to maintain what he’s been doing to lock up his first title and it doesn’t matter what Stewart does.
“I feel that they have obviously had flashes of great speed and have won four races, and we haven’t, but the job that we have done I am very proud of,” he said. “We don’t have trophies lined up, but the recoveries we have made and consistency we have shown and the ability to come back from really tough days, I wouldn’t have been able to do it a year or two years ago.
“At the end of the day, we are still leading the points. They have to overtake us and beat us.”