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Kyle Busch’s closing qualifying flurry lands Indy pole

UPDATED: Sat., July 22, 2017

Kyle Busch talks with his son, Brexton, after winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indianapolis on Saturday, July 22, 2017. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
Kyle Busch talks with his son, Brexton, after winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indianapolis on Saturday, July 22, 2017. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)
By Michael Marot Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – Less than an hour after watching one winning streak end Saturday, Kyle Busch started working on another.

Now the two-time defending Brickyard 400 champion is in the best possible position for an unprecedented three-peat at Indianapolis.

Busch became the first Cup driver in nearly two decades to win back-to-back Indy poles by saving his fastest lap for the final one of the day. His speed of 187.301 mph was almost a mph faster than second-place Kevin Harvick and was the second-fastest pole-winning speed in the race’s 24-year history.

“Obviously, we’ve had a really fast car,” Busch said after winning his fourth pole of the season. “We’ve been focused on race trim and I felt like we did a pretty good job with that. But I wasn’t sure about qualifying. So, obviously, they were listened to what our teammates had to say.”

He couldn’t quibble with the results.

Harvick’s No. 4 Ford was second at 186.332 and Jamie McMurray, in the No. 1 Chevrolet, wound up third at 186.274. Nobody else topped 185.

If the 2015 Cup champion wins Sunday, he will join former Formula One star Michael Schumacher as the only drivers with three straight Indy wins in the premier series of their respective leagues. Schumacher won the U.S. Grand Prix four consecutive times on the road course. Nobody has ever won three straight races on Indy’s oval.

“We’ve just got to keep it there, stay up front and, of course, lead the last lap,” Busch said as his 2-year-old son, Brexton, giggled into a microphone.

For Busch, it was another marathon session on another hot, humid midsummer afternoon in the No. 18 Toyota.

He drove in both of the morning’s Cup practices, qualified for the NASCAR Xfinity Series race in the early afternoon and watched his four-race Indy winning streak snapped after a late pit stop dropped him from first to 21st. Busch finished 12th.

After about a 30-minute break, he was back in the car for three more qualifying rounds. His last lap allowed him to join Jeff Gordon (1995-96) and Ernie Irvan (1997-98) as the race’s only back-to-back pole winners.

It certainly wasn’t strategy.

“When you’re in such a short window, five minutes, you couldn’t come back and get the tires cooled in time to make another lap,” he said.

But it was good enough.

Harvick, meanwhile, found the consistency he was seeking but avoided going too hard to get into trouble.

“I think that was the right approach,” Harvick said. “I’ve tried to get too much in the last round and this is just not the place where you can overdrive the entry and make up for something. The problems compound fast here, but it’s good to have that speed.”

Going to the back

For the second consecutive week, series officials threw out a qualifying speed.

This time, it was BJ McLeod who drew the penalty after a post-qualifying inspection showed the No. 51 car had taped shut a cooling aqueduct. It was supposed to remain open and the penalty cost McLeod five spots on the starting gird.

He will start from the back of the 40-car starting grid after initially qualifying 35th with a speed of 176.294.

Kyle Larson’s pole-winning run was disallowed last week at New Hampshire.

Junior’s finale

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in the series, qualified 13th for his final Indianapolis start.

The 42-year-old driver announced in April that he will retire at the end of the season. But before he goes, Earnhardt hopes to join Al Unser and Al Unser Jr. as the only two father-son winning tandems in Indy history.

“Considering how our season has gone, winning here would right all the wrongs,” Earnhardt said.

Chase Elliott, who qualified 16th, also has a chance to join the father-son winner’s list Sunday.

Hard lesson

One of Harvick’s spotters, Tim Fedewa, had his credential taken away briefly Saturday after dropping a sandwich from the spotter’s stand.

NASCAR spokesman Matt Humphrey said the hard card was returned following a short investigation.

Fedewa is a former driver in the series.

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