Keselowski leads Team Penske sweep with Pocono pole


By Dan Gelston

AP Sports Writer

LONG POND, Pa. — Brad Keselowski has the best start at Pocono for a race he can’t wait to finish.

Win or lose — and, yes, Keselowski wants to win even with a Chase berth in the bag — the end of the race means the 2012 Sprint Cup champion is one week closer toward NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.

With the summer racing season just heating up, Keselowski is already antsy for September.

“I am ready to go run for the championship right now,” he said. “I am hungry for it. I think we have a good opportunity and I really want to win a second championship.”

Up first, trying to win his second career race at Pocono Raceway. Keselowski led a Team Penske first-row sweep with his first pole of the season, turning a lap of 181.726 mph on Friday to just edge teammate Joey Logano.

The Pocono pole capped a banner weekend for team owner Roger Penske. Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya qualified 1-2-3 for Penske for this weekend’s first IndyCar race at Belle Isle.

“The IndyCar side always sets the bar really high,” Keselowski said. “That’s not a bad thing. That’s part of having a great effort with a great group. I look at their side and they’ve done a tremendous side the last few years of winning races. We’re trying to do the same.”

He’s done a pretty good job in 2016, winning at Las Vegas and Talladega, with eight top 10s.

With two victories, Keselowski is already locked into a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Keselowski, who won the last 500-mile race at Pocono, said racing with a playoff bid secured creates different kinds of challenges over the summer before the Chase field is set in September.

“It is a really interesting dynamic to the current format and creates this period of anticipation with acknowledgment that you just have to keep racing,” he said. “I think trying to keep that pace and keep the excitement and energy up through these few months is a tough task but one that we will have to take up.”

Keselowski stopped by the Pocono media center on Friday, then returned a few hours later after he won the pole.

“If I come twice, then people hate me,” he said, laughing.

Logano, who has forged a close friendship with Keselowski, would not be among the haters. He was, however, irked, that Keselowski had just enough to top him in the third round of qualifying as rain sprinkled the track.

“That one stings a little bit,” Logano said. “We’re mad about second. So that’s a good thing when you’re mad about second. It means your organization and your team are where they need to be.”

Rain washed out the only Sprint Cup practice and two practices for the Xfinity Series. The Cup cars attempted practice in the morning, but only 28 cars hit the track in roughly 10 minutes before rain brought the incomplete session to a halt.

Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards completed the top five. Tony Stewart was sixth for easily his top qualifying run of the season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 10.

Here are some other things of note on a rainy day at Pocono.

XFINITY DEBUT: NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series will race Saturday for the first time at Pocono. The track has long held two Sprint Cup race weekends and added the Truck Series in 2010. The 250-miler is the first second-tier race on a track which has hosted NASCAR-sanctioned events since 1974.

“It’s different to everything else,” Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Suarez said. “I think the corner one is just Pocono, there’s nothing similar to that corner. And two and three, maybe something similar to Indy and Indy is on my list of favorite race tracks, so I think I’m about to add Pocono to the list, too.”

NASCAR CHASE: Chase Elliott opened the season by winning the pole at the Daytona 500 and hasn’t slowed down much the rest of the season.

The rookie tagged to replace the retired Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevy and has four straight top-10 finishes and six of seven overall. He was a career-best third last month at Dover International Speedway, losing out on a down-the-stretch battle with Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth.

He’s still looking for his first Cup victory as he heads Sunday into his 19th career race.

“I feel like I have a team and a group of guys that are capable of winning if I do my part for them,” he said. “I truly believe that. When I come to the race track each weekend, I really have the strong belief that our team can win. I think that’s something that’s important for all of us to believe. And if we didn’t believe that, we might as well stay home.”

He was the fastest-qualifying rookie at 13th.

QUALIFYING NOTES: Denny Hamlin had advanced to the final round of qualifying at every race this season.

Keselowski won his 12th pole in 247 Cup races. He had never started better than third in 13 races at Pocono.

Chevy put six cars in the top 12.

By Dan Gelston

AP Sports Writer

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