CONCORD, N.C. — In auto racing, it’s always good to be out front, something not lost on Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader Kyle Larson.
Larson, the 24-year-old California native, won the pole for Saturday’s Monster Energy All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, turning a three-lap average of 143.849 miles per hour in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
The performance surprised even Larson, who already has one victory and five top-five finishes in this, his breakout season.
“I wasn’t expecting to qualify this good,” said Larson. “I was just hoping to make the final round.”
Last year, Larson nearly won this race, but bounced off the wall late as Joey Logano drove to victory.
Kyle Busch, who like Larson is looking for his first all-star win, will start on the outside of Row 1. Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing, four-time all-star winner Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports and SHR’s Kurt Busch completed the top five.
It was a close race for the pole, as Kyle Busch was just 0.01 seconds slower than Larson.
“I thought our lap was really good. We had speed in our race car,” said Busch, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver who has three poles here. “I wish we were a little bit better for a starting position, but we’ll be top five so we’ll take it.”
The All-Star Race featured a qualifying format unlike any other in NASCAR: Drivers make three hot laps with a mandatory four-tire pit stop included. And unlike normal NASCAR races, there was no speed limit on pit road.
“It’s pretty intense, for sure,” pole-sitter Larson said of his run. “It’s not as crazy intense as I thought it would be, but it’s fun.”
The five fastest of the 16 drivers who qualified in Round 1 advanced to the second and final round.
Kurt Busch appeared to have won the pole, running a faster speed in the second round than Larson did, but his SHR Ford had two loose lug nuts. That earned Busch a 10-second penalty, which dropped him to fifth.
In his final all-star weekend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified sixth in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Earnhardt was the first driver to miss the final round, but considering he fought handling woes, it was a more-than-respectable effort.
Friday’s qualifying set the order for the top 16 all-star qualifiers. Starting positions 17-20 in the $1 million-to-win all-star race will go to the winners of each of the three stages in the last chance, 50-lap Monster Energy Open preliminary tomorrow, as well as the winner of the Monster Energy Fan Vote.