Friday, specifically, offered the opportunity for Kahne to snatch the season’s award for poles away from Kurt Busch, who was looking to keep that honor at Penske South after Ryan Newman had won it for the past four years.
Kahne did precisely that, running a lap 178.259 mph to win his sixth pole of the season. Busch also had six poles, but since Kahne qualified second fastest twice and Busch did that only once, Kahne claimed the year’s award.
“That’s huge,” said Kahne, who also leads the circuit with six race victories this year. “That’s a big deal, because it’s nice to know we’ve had great cars on Friday and on Sunday, too.”
Kahne won for the sixth time at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last month, but by that time back-to-back finishes outside the top 30 at Dover and Kansas had knocked him out of contention in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. He’s ninth in the standings, 319 points out of first, and among the championship afterthoughts going into the finale.
Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson, the driver in command of the Chase, got the most important weekend of his career off to a solid if unspectacular start on Friday.
With a win and four second-place finishes in the past five races, Johnson has crafted a 63-point edge over Matt Kenseth, a 90-point lead over Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin and a 115-point edge over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Going out sixth among 56 cars making qualifying runs, Johnson ran 176.569 mph in his No. 48 Chevrolet. That wound up 15th best, leaving Johnson at least in the neighborhood of where he needs to be when Sunday’s race ends. If Johnson finishes 12th or better, he’ll clinch the title regardless of what else might happen.
“We’re excited just to get to work,” said Johnson, who qualified 39th and 32nd here in the past two years. “We want to get out there and do the job we’ve been working so hard on. That’s the best lap we’d had all day.”
It was better than Kenseth’s lap, by just a bit. Kenseth ran 176.344 mph and will start 19th on Sunday.
“For what we ran in practice, that was a really good lap,” Kenseth said. “I hope we’ll have a good car for Sunday, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Harvick had the best lap among the drivers still at least mathematically alive in the championship hunt, going 177.270 to earn the No. 7 spot. Earnhardt Jr. will start 14th and Hamlin lines up 33rd.
Kahne, meanwhile, wasn’t the only member of his Evernham Motorsports team with a fast Dodge on Friday. Scott Riggs ran 178.281 mph in his No. 10 and will start alongside Kahne on the front row. Elliott Sadler starts fourth alongside Kyle Busch on the second row.
Jeff Burton, the points leader halfway through the Chase who has since slipped into seventh place, was fifth fastest on Friday with Brian Vickers, Harvick, J.J. Yeley, David Gilliland and Clint Bowyer rounding out the top 10.
Former Formula One driver and Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Montoya earned the right to make his Nextel Cup debut with a lap at 175.581 mph that gave him the 29th starting spot.
“It was stressful,” Montoya said of the wait to see if his speed would stand up as 13 cars not guaranteed starting spot were destined to go home. “You don’t want to come here and look like an idiot by not making the show.”
Ward Burton, Kenny Wallace and Michael Waltrip were among those who failed to make the field.
Pos # Driver Sponsor Car
1 9 Kasey Kahne Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge
2 10 Scott Riggs Valvoline/Stanley Tools Dodge
3 5 Kyle Busch Kellogg’s Chevrolet
4 19 Elliott Sadler Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge
5 31 Jeff Burton Cingular Wireless Chevrolet
6 25 Brian Vickers GMAC Chevrolet
7 29 Kevin Harvick GM Goodwrench Chevrolet
8 18 J.J. Yeley Interstate Batteries Chevrolet
9 38 David Gilliland M&M’s Ford
10 07 Clint Bowyer Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet
11 41 Reed Sorenson Target Dodge
12 24 Jeff Gordon DuPont Chevrolet
13 01 Joe Nemechek U.S. Army Chevrolet
14 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Budweiser Chevrolet
15 48 Jimmie Johnson Lowe’s Chevrolet
16 12 Ryan Newman Alltel Dodge
17 49 Mike Bliss whatsOnline.com Dodge
18 14 Sterling Marlin Ginn Clubs & Resorts Chevrolet
19 17 Matt Kenseth DeWalt Ford
20 1 Martin Truex Jr. Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet
21 20 Tony Stewart The Home Depot Chevrolet
22 16 Greg Biffle National Guard Ford
23 40 David Stremme Coors Light Dodge
24 33 Scott Wimmer Holiday Inn Chevrolet
25 22 Dave Blaney Caterpillar Dodge
26 6 Mark Martin AAA Ford
27 66 Jeff Green Best Buy Chevrolet
28 15 Paul Menard Menards Chevrolet
29 30 Juan Pablo Montoya Texaco/Havoline Dodge
30 43 Bobby Labonte Chex Party Mix Dodge
31 99 Carl Edwards Office Depot Ford
32 09 Jeremy Mayfield Miccosukee Resort Dodge
33 11 Denny Hamlin FedEx Chevrolet
34 32 Travis Kvapil Tide/Downy Chevrolet
35 7 Robby Gordon Menards Chevrolet
36 2 Kurt Busch Miller Lite Dodge
37 21 Ken Schrader Motorcraft Ford
38 45 Kyle Petty Wells Fargo Dodge
39 42 Casey Mears Texaco/Havoline Dodge
40 96 Tony Raines DLP HDTV Chevrolet
41 88 Dale Jarrett UPS Ford
42 26 Jamie McMurray Crown Royal Ford
43 00 Bill Elliott Burger King Chevrolet