Juan-Pablo Montoya sped around New Hampshire Motor Speedway in a blistering track-record 28.545 seconds (133.431mph) to win the pole for Sunday's Sylvania 300, the first race in the Chase for the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Montoya, who clinched his berth in NASCAR's play-offs last Saturday at Richmond, starts the Chase 40 points behind leader Mark Martin, who qualified 14th in Friday's time trials. Two-time NSCS champion Tony Stewart, the pace-setter through 26 events before the Chase field was re-seeded according to race wins, will start beside Montoya on the front row courtesy of a lap at 132.581mph. Now seeded second in the Chase order, Stewart registered his twelfth top ten starting position of the season.
Chase contender Kurt Busch, who matched Stewart's speed to the thousandth of a second, will start third alongside Denny Hamlin (132.030mph). Carl Edwards (132.012mph) qualified fifth, followed by David Stremme, Martin Truex Jr., Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon.
“At the end of practice, we made a [qualifying-style] run,” said Montoya, after securing his second pole of the year and the second of his career. “The lap wasn't that great, and we still ran a .70 (actually .74), so like, 'wow – interesting'. Can't complain.”
Montoya – seeded eleventh out of the twelve competitors in the ten-race battle for the championship – clinched his Chase spot with conservative points racing, but now is inclined to take a more aggressive approach.
“You've got to be very smart about it,” the Colombian acknowledged. “Most of the cars in the Chase are going to be up there. To gain points is going to be really hard, but to lose points to them is going to be very easy. I think you've got to be very smart about it in that respect, but in the end, you've got to go for wins. You've got to go for broke here.”
In addition to Montoya, Stewart, Busch, Hamlin, Martin, Edwards and Gordon, drivers competing in the Chase earned the following starting spots: Kasey Kahne eleventh; third-seeded Jimmie Johnson 16th; tenth seed Ryan Newman 18th; defending race-winner Greg Biffle 22nd; and Brian Vickers 26th.
“I was happy with it,” revealed Stewart who, as the winner of three races this season, enters the Chase ten points behind Martin. “I think we ran a .74 (actually .79) in practice and a .72 in qualifying, so we backed up what we ran, and we're pretty happy with that. Normally, if we qualify well here, we race really well here, so it's a perfect start to the weekend so far.”
Denny Hamlin said that Kyle Busch's promise to help his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate as much as he could during the Chase might not amount to much – unless it involves a revenge factor...and with Busch having missed the Chase by eight points, the Nevada-born star certainly now has more latitude to race aggressively.