Busch on pole at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch has been the guy to beat this year on short tracks and that won’t change when the field lines up Sunday for the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

The driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota will start on the pole but he has been considered a race favorite long before he beat 39 others for the top spot Saturday afternoon.

Busch, the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, didn’t win here in March, but he finished second.

He then won at Bristol (Tenn.) and Richmond (Va.), went back to Richmond in the fall and won again. A 20th in the Night Race at Bristol has been the only hiccup this season.

All three of the tracks are less than one mile in length. Busch seems to thrive on them. Fifteen of his 50 career wins in the series have come on short tracks. Bristol, where he has seven career wins, and Richmond, where he has six, are at the top of the list. He’s a two-time winner at Martinsville.

If the series was still racing at North Wilkesboro (N.C.), a former short-track stop, Busch would probably have more than his share of victories there, too.

“I enjoy coming to this place more so now at this stage of my career than earlier in my career,” Busch, 33, said. “It’s due to a great team and all these guys and our fast … Camry.”

No driver has won from the pole here since Jimmie Johnson in 2013.

Under overcast skies, Busch captured the No. 1 qualifying position with a lap of 19.673 seconds (96.254 mph). It was the only round of the three he led. Older brother Kurt Busch was fastest in the second round, Ryan Blaney in first.

“We’ve actually had really good short-run speed so far and our long-run speed has been OK too,” Busch said. “I’ve just been able to really bust off some good lap times on the short run.

“We knew we would have the opportunity to qualify well if we hit all our marks … and we did. I still feel like we do a have a good race car and we can be a car to contend with tomorrow.”

Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) will start second, with Denny Hamlin (JGR), Blaney (Team Penske Ford) and Aric Almirola (SHR) rounding out the top five.

Busch, Bowyer and Almirola are three of the eight Playoff drivers competing for the series championship.

Fellow contender Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing) will start sixth, Kurt Busch (SHR) seventh and Joey Logano (Penske) 11th.

Kevin Harvick (SHR) and Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports) will start 13th and 21st respectively, among the Playoff teams.

Busch has only started outside the top 10 once in his last nine Martinsville starts. He’s won twice, finished second twice and finished fifth twice in his last six.

Bowyer won here in the spring but admits his qualifying leaves something to be desired.

“Good God, after the way I’ve been qualifying it feels like I’m sitting on four poles,” he said. “We’re on the front row man.”

Maybe he wasn’t fastest Saturday but Bowyer won’t raise a fuss.

“Kyle is really good at laying laps down,” he said of the pole winner’s qualifying effort. “I like the Sunday afternoon drives.”

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