By DAN GELSTON
The Associated Press
LOUDON, N.H. — Kyle Busch’s run in NASCAR’s playoff opener went from dominant to dud because of mistakes on pit road. Clean up those gaffes, and Busch again just may have the car to the beat.
Busch made it 2 for 2 in playoff poles, turning a lap of 135.049 mph to take the top spot Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He won his eighth pole of the season in the No. 18 Toyota.
“We just need to somehow figure out how to turn these things into good Sundays,” he said. “It would be nice to stay up front all day.”
Busch dominated early in the postseason opener at Chicagoland Speedway and had his 12th stage win of the season. He led 85 laps and was positioned as the driver to beat until his race unraveled in the pits. Busch was forced to pit because of a loose tire, then his Joe Gibbs Racing crew was penalized when his gas man hopped the wall on pit road too soon.
The back-to-back mistakes were too costly for Busch to recover. He faded to 15th — though he only fell from third to fifth in the standings and is in little danger of missing the cutoff for the second round.
Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, hoped it was just a matter of first-race jitters for his new crew. Joe Gibbs Racing swapped pit crews for Busch with teammate Daniel Saurez’s crew for the final 10 playoff races.
“I’m sure the consensus is that hopefully it’s out of the way and there’s no more jitters,” Busch said. “We can focus on looking forward and having the opportunity to race for the championship with this group of guys and have fast pit stops like they’ve been doing all year long.”
Kyle Larson, who won the pole in July at New Hampshire, joins Busch on the front row. Larson was second in the first Cup race at the track.
Playoff drivers took 13 of the top 14 spots. The 16-driver field is sliced to 12 after next weekend’s race at Dover.
Top 10 spots for other drivers racing for the championship over the final nine races include: Denny Hamlin starts third, Ryan Blaney fourth, Martin Truex Jr. fifth, Kevin Harvick sixth, Kurt Busch seventh, Kasey Kahne ninth and Matt Kenseth 10th.
Truex won his fifth race of the season in the NASCAR playoff opener at Chicagoland.
Erik Jones was the highest non-playoff qualifier in eighth.
Kahne posted a strong run in the No. 5 Chevrolet in his first race with new crew chief Darian Grubb. Grubb replaced Keith Rodden with nine races left before Kahne leaves Hendrick Motorsports for a ride next year with Leavine Family Racing.
Chase Elliott starts 14th in the No. 24 Chevrolet with a different crew chief for the weekend. Elliott suffered a setback to his championship hopes when NASCAR penalized the No. 24 team for a modification to his Chevrolet in the opening round of the playoffs. The finish is now considered “encumbered” by NASCAR and Elliott does not keep a playoff point he earned with a stage victory at Chicagoland.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson was fined $25,000 and suspended one race, and car chief Joshua Kirk also was suspended one race. The team was docked 15 driver points and 15 owner points. Veteran crew chief Kenny Francis replaced Gustafson at New Hampshire.
Elliott and teammate Jimmie Johnson both qualified in backup cars following wrecks earlier Friday in practice.
“I thought that really for everything that happened, it could have been a lot worse,” Elliott said. “We are out of race cars so you don’t want to do anything stupid and wreck another one. So, that was the big thing.”
NASCAR Monster Energy
ISM Connect 300 Lineup
After Friday qualifying; race Sunday
At New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Lap length: 1.06 miles
(Car number in parentheses)
1. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 135.049 mph.
2. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 134.911.
3. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 134.763.
4. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 134.720.
5. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 134.188.
6. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 134.108.
7. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 133.985.
8. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 133.971.
9. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 133.966.
10. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 133.689.
11. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 133.680.
12. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 131.989.
13. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 133.422.
14. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 133.357.
15. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 133.333.
16. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 133.221.
17. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 133.133.
18. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 133.007.
19. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 132.827.
20. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 132.771.
21. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 132.771.
22. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 132.494.
23. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 132.278.
24. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 131.628.
25. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 132.466.
26. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 132.406.
27. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 132.383.
28. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 132.067.
29. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 131.820.
30. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 131.701.
31. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 131.683.
32. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 130.923.
33. (23) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 130.855.
34. (55) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 130.184.
35. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 129.918.
36. (83) Brett Moffitt(i), Toyota, 129.710.
37. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 127.444.
38. (51) Cody Ware, Chevrolet, 124.634.
39. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, no speed.