LAS VEGAS — Clint Bowyer won the pole position for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, turning a fast lap of 178.926 mph in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
It is only the third pole position he has earned in 14 years of full-time Cup Series competition and the first, coincidentally, since this same date – Sept. 14– at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2007, a race he won. There have been 431 races since his last pole.
It’s exactly the kind of start to his playoffs Bowyer needed. But not one he necessarily expected.
“I’m as shocked as you are,’’ Bowyer said, laughing as he sat down to address reporters after the qualifying session. “I’m extremely proud of the effort. We’re on the pole, but 1-2-3-4 for Stewart-Haas Racing that says a lot about our focus.’’
Bowyer will start alongside SHR teammate Daniel Suarez, who was less than a tenth-of-a-second off Bowyer’s pace in the No. 41 SHR Ford. Their teammates, playoff-eligible drivers Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola, were third and fourth fastest, giving the team a sweep in qualifying.
“You have to qualify well because it puts you in position to start the race on a good note and stay up front and keep some track position, and it really sets you up to score points in Stage 1,’’ said Almirola, driver of the No. 10 SHR Ford. “That is really what qualifying well does for you. I think that is the biggest thing.”
Las Vegas native Kurt Busch was fifth fastest in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – best of the non-SHR competitors. His brother and 2019 regular-season champion, Kyle, will start 20th – second best among the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team. Kyle’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, will start 13th.
Interestingly, five of the top 10 drivers on Sunday’s grid are not playoff competitors – including Suarez, Richard Childress Racing teammates Daniel Hemric (sixth) and Austin Dillon (seventh), Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson (eighth) and Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell, who will start 10th – his best position on the grid this season except for a seventh-place start at Chicagoland Speedway in June.
Defending race winner Brad Keselowski qualified 18th, and Team Penske teammate Joey Logano, who won here in March, qualified 22nd.
Bowyer certainly is hopeful this improved Vegas starting position will also translate into an improved Vegas finish for him. He has only a single top-five showing and four top 10s in 15 starts at the track. His best result is runner-up in 2009.
He arrives in Las Vegas, however, riding a solid streak of success. He has accomplished three top 10s in the previous three races leading into this playoff opener. And he has six top-five and 12 top-10 finishes this season.
“It’s playoff time, and it’s going to get intense right off the bat,’’ Bowyer said. “I say it every year, you can’t win the championship in Las Vegas but you can lose it here.”