Busch Wins Bud Pole

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Rookies aren’t supposed to be this good. Not at Darlington Raceway, this difficult 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval.

Rookies aren’t supposed to win poles here, either. A first-year driver had never won a pole in the 51-year history of NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.

That changed Friday, and it took a Busch-leaguer to do it. Rookie Kurt Busch, driving one of Jack Roush’s Fords, turned a lap of 168.048 mph to win the pole for Sunday’s Southern 500.

“This is unbelievable,” said Busch, whose best career start was ninth, accomplished twice earlier this year. “Hopefully we won’t drop like lead in a swimming pool when the race starts.

”This is something not to be expected at Darlington, so I’m caught a little bit by surprise, as is everybody else.

“I’ve got to thank the Sharpie/Rubbermaid car for giving me the opportunity to dance with the Lady in Black.”

Busch edged Winston Cup points leader Jeff Gordon, who was the last driver to qualify. Gordon went 167.916 and will go for his fifth Southern 500 victory – tying him with Cale Yarborough for the most wins – from the outside of the front row.

Both of Gordon’s closest challengers for the Winston Cup title struggled. Ricky Rudd, who came in 308 points behind Gordon, qualified 26th at165.917. Rudd’s teammate, Dale Jarrett, was 27th at 165.905.

“If I detect a mood in my team that they think they’re running away, then I’m going to smack ‘em,” Gordon said. “We know how a lead of 308 points right now means absolutely nothing at this point in the season. It means that we’re having a good year, it means the cars are running well.

“This thing is certainly not over yet. Don’t write it off. A lot of things are going to change before this thing’s over. We’ve certainly got the package that it takes to bring this thing home, but that doesn’t bring any guarantees.”

The Penske Racing duo of Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace were third and fourth, respectively, while Kevin Harvick rounded out the Top 5. Sixth through 10th were John Andretti – the first car to qualify – Ricky Craven, Ken Schrader, Bill Elliott and defending Southern 500 Bobby Labonte.

Busch credited a recent decision to work on qualifying as the catalyst for his pole. Still, to win a pole at Darlington was a surprise.

“I was probably the most surprised person on the race track that Kurt got the pole today,” Roush said. “After the way we’d run last year and the way he tested, I expected a pole early in the year, but I’d settled in for a long siege. I figured it was going to be harder than I thought it was initially.

“I can’t believe it happened here today. It’s just wonderful.”

As nice as it was, Busch didn’t seem to be too overwhelmed. He was already looking to Sunday’s race, hoping he can stay up front all day.

“I don’t know if they’re going to start handing out points for poles,” Busch said. “It doesn’t mean anything for points. The prestige of having a pole at Darlington Raceway is unbelievable.”

Gordon knows all about that, having won three here.

“It helped going out last, seeing what guys were going to run,” Gordon said. “Kurt put up a great number, Jeremy put up a great number. I didn’t know if we had a shot at that or not. … I knew we were going to have a good run, but I did have to get out of it a little bit coming off 2. That’s where I lost it.”

And that’s where Busch gained it. He credited a good Turn 2 for propelling him to a fast lap. Still, he was surprised he went that fast and held on to the pole.

“To have Jeff Gordon go as the last car – that was drama,” Busch said. “To be in the front row would’ve been something I wouldn’t have expected.”

Mayfield has finished in the Top 5 in five of the last seven races at the 1.366-mile track, including third in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 in March. He was leading the Southern 500 last year when he tangled with a lapped car.

Mayfield has led 246 laps in the last seven races, including 104 of the first 118 laps in the Southern 500 a year ago, but has yet to go to Darlington’s victory lane. Mayfield brought the same car back to this year’s Southern 500.

“It’s the same setup and the same car – everything,” Mayfield said. “It’s really my favorite car. It’s about the best car we’ve got that I really like. We just come here and put it together and make it work. Believe it or not, it’s the oldest car we’ve got.

“A lot of people don’t even like coming here, but for some reason I’ve just adapted well to it, and I like it. We always seem to have a pretty good setup here. We seem to run pretty good, and we’ve been fast since coming here.”

Mayfield and Wallace were going for a Darlington sweep for Penske Racing. Ryan Newman won the pole for the Busch Series race earlier Friday in a Penske Ford.

“I’m pretty pleased with it,” Wallace said. “We were really lose when we got here and made a lot of adjustments…we thought about what we did. In my qualifying attempt (in practice), I messed up. We got in a little lower (in the turns) and got on (the gas) it a little earlier.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 18th at 166.394 mph, while Jeff Burton, who has finished in the Top 5 eight of the last nine races here, qualified 23rd.

Steve Park was second fastest in practice but slowed down a half-second when he qualified. Park complained of a loose car as weather conditions changed and ended up 34th. Ward Burton, who was fourth in practice, had a right-front tire go flat and he scrubbed the wall on his qualifying attempt.

Burton didn’t finish his lap and took a provisional. The other six cars that made the race on a provisional were Ron Hornaday, Mike Wallace, Kyle Petty, Jason Leffler, Buckshot Jones and Rick Mast.

Andy Houston and Dave Marcis were the only two drivers who failed to qualify.

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