It’s a Logano, and a Ford day, at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano will start from the pole Sunday when the STP 500 gets underway here at tiny Martinsville Speedway.

The 28-year-old pushed his No. 22 Team Penske Ford around the .526-mile oval at a speed of 97.83 mph, to nudge fellow ford driver Aric Almirola (97.643 mph) off the top spot in the final round of qualifying for the series’ sixth race of the season.

Logano won here last fall, securing a spot in the Championship 4 where he ultimately won his first Cup championship. He’s already won this season to likely secure a berth in this season’s 16-team playoffs and he finished second a week ago at Auto Club Speedway.

To say he and his team, led by crew chief Todd Gordon, are running well would be an understatement.

But Martinsville, the only track that has hosted NASCAR’s top series since its debut in 1949, has been a bit of a mixed bag for the New England native. Logano has finished in the top 10 in nearly one-half his starts here (nine of 20) but he’s also finished 20th or worse five times.

In qualifying Saturday, he and his team’s efforts were short and sweet … and fast. Logano needed just two laps to land at sixth quickest in the first round and one lap in the second round to remain sixth best. That sent him into the third and final round with remarkably fresh tires.

“That really paid a reward as we got to the third round,” Logano said, noting his team chose not to make any mock qualifying runs during practice. “It’s important to win a pole here – to start up front is obviously safer, but you can also run your (race) pace and (it’s) a safer place on pit road as well.”

Tire conservation in qualifying isn’t exactly the norm at most tracks – but at Martinsville it can be a deciding factor.

“It’s not just one lap like most tracks we go to,” he said, “(where) you lay down one and you’re done. Here, you’ve got to run quite a few laps to be able to lay down a fast one, which makes me run out of breath, by the way. It’s like the most intense qualifying session for me. … We go slower here than anywhere else we go and I’m breathing harder than anywhere else we go, so there must be something to it.”

Ford teams swept the first four spots with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski third fastest and Kevin Harvick, Almirola’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, fourth.

Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota) was fifth in the final round, after posting the quickest times in the first two rounds.

Logano, who has 22 career wins, hasn’t won a Cup race from the pole since 2016 (at Michigan International Speedway).

No driver has won a Cup race from the pole since Martin Truex captured the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway last summer.

Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson will carry a 64-race winless streak into Sunday’s event. A nine-time winner at Martinsville, Johnson will start 12th.

Kyle Busch could muster only a 14th-best qualifying time for Sunday. Busch, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota in the Cup Series, has won the last two Cup races – at Phoenix and Fontana, Calif.; he also has two wins in the Xfinity Series this season and a win Saturday at Martinsville was his third consecutive Truck Series win.

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