Kyle Busch will start the opening playoff race from the pole-position after topping Monster Energy Cup Series qualifying Friday at Chicagoland Speedway, site of Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400.
Busch lead a Toyota sweep of the top-three spots, just hours after Ford driver Brad Keselowski criticized NASCAR for allowing Toyota to have what he perceived as a performance advantage. After winning his seventh pole of the season with a 187.963 mph lap around the mile-and-a-half track, Busch made sure to tweak his rival.
“It’s because I’m in a Toyota,” Busch said.
Denny Hamlin (186.168 mph) qualified second, with Martin Truex Jr. (185.893 mph) third. Kevin Harvick in a Ford and Keselowski completed the top five.
“At the start of the year, we were at the top of the cycle,” Keselowski said. “And at this moment, we are not where we need to be. With respect to that, we were at the top and it seemed like there were a lot of rules changes us to slow us down and now you have cars that are so much faster than the field and the complete inaction by [NASCAR].”
Busch and Keselowski, both former Cup champions, have a long rivalry that includes hard racing on the track and heated words off it. On Friday, Keselowski tweeted that the gap between Toyota and the Ford and Chevrolet was the biggest NASCAR had seen in decades. That prompted Busch, Hamlin and Truex’s crew chief, Cole Pearn, to rebuke Keselowski.
“He’s an idiot anyways, we all know that,” Busch said. “You don’t hear anyone else complaining like he is -- it’s just one guy. We weren’t complaining when they were fast and they won the championship knowing what they were doing, we had to go to work and figure it out. It just seems like those things aren’t happening.”
The increased hostilities between Busch and Keselowski comes with both among the 16 drivers who earned a spot in the playoffs, with the first of 10 races on Sunday. Busch is the third seed, with Keselowski the fourth seed.
"I'm way behind in payback. He's way ahead,” Busch said. “If anyone is gonna get it, it's him"
Playoff-eligible drivers held the top-five positions in qualifying and nine of the top 10. Joey Logano, Keselowski’s teammate, was the outlier in seventh. Kyle Larson starts sixth, with Chase Elliott in eighth, Austin Dillon in ninth, and Matt Kenseth in 10th.
Defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will begin his title defense from the 14th position. He is winless at Chicagoland in 15 career starts, one of three tracks the seven-time champion has not won a premier-division race. Johnson and the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team enter the playoffs coming off a sluggish regular season.
“If we can move forward like we typically do in the race and get up in the top 10 or top 5, it can completely change the outcome of the race and get momentum going the right way for us,” Johnson said. “We’re digging deep. I think we’ve improved some. And it’s playoff time and the weather is cooling down and fall is here, so it’s time for the No. 48 to get hot.”
Erik Jones’ spin off brought out the only caution of the session. The rookie for Furniture Row Racing got loose exiting Turn 4 and looped his Toyota without hitting anything. Jones qualified 24th, but because he will have to change his flat-spotted tires he will forfeit his starting position and fall to the rear of the 40-car grid.
Kasey Kahne was the only playoff-eligible driver not to advance past the first qualifying round. The Hendrick driver will start 25th Sunday.
“We were terrible in practice, we were terrible in qualifying,” Kahne said. “Tomorrow is a new day and we’ll do everything we can to be much better. But yeah, today was awful.”