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Martinsville, Va. — Kyle Busch’s road to the championship round was made a little bit easier when he won the pole at Martinsville Speedway.

Busch turned a lap at 96.254 mph around the Virginia paperclip to earn the top starting spot in Sunday’s race, the first of the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs. Eight drivers remain eligible for the title, but only four will advance to the season finale shootout.

A win in any of the three races in this round of the playoffs earns a driver an automatic berth.

Busch won Martinsville last year to earn a spot at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and he’s been so good all year as a member of NASCAR’s so-called “Big 3” that advancing to the finale is almost a given. He said Saturday after qualifying that the pressure has been amped considerably.

“Anytime you’re under pressure or under the amount of stress as what this round is to get yourself into the final four for Homestead, anytime you can kind of take a step back and have a clear head is a good time,” Busch said. “The pressure that sets in over these next two weeks if you’re behind the cutoff line … that can certainly wear on your during the week. You try to have other things to do to kind of take your mind off of it a little bit. This is what we live, eat, breath, sleep, everything. It’s always on our mind.”

The official lineup is not set until after Sunday morning’s inspection, and drivers whose cars fail inspection will start from the rear. Pit selection will occur after cars are inspected, and Busch is eager to claim the first stall on pit road to ease his exits during the race.

“Obviously starting position is important, but the opportunity is really to have that pit box,” Busch said. “That number one pit box will hopefully do us good and we can have a good day, run up front much of the day and finish there.”

Clint Bowyer qualified second in a Ford from Stewart-Haas Racing, which has all four of its drivers in the field of eight. SHR teammate Aric Almirola qualified fifth, Kurt Busch was seventh and Kevin Harvick 13th.

Chase Elliott was the lowest-qualifying playoff driver at 21st.

Winner of two of the last three races, Elliott was terse after his poor qualifying effort.

Asked what he needed to do better in qualifying, Elliott answered: “to go a lot faster.”

And his hopes for the start of Sunday’s race because he’s starting mid-pack? “Not getting lapped.”

Trucks

Johnny Sauter will again race for the Truck Series championship, getting an automatic berth into the finals by winning at Martinsville Speedway.

Sauter won for the fourth time in a truck at Martinsville. This win, in the opening race of the series’ round of six, was good for one of the four slots in the Nov. 16 season finale. It gave the Sauter the most victories in the series at the Virginia track.

Brett Moffitt, a playoff driver, finished second and was followed by non-title contenders Myatt Snider, Ben Rhodes and Kyle Benjamin.

Sauter led 148 of 200 laps in Martinsville.

Playoff driver Grant Enfinger spun late in the race and finished 14th, lowest among the six title contenders. Justin Haley finished sixth, Noah Gragson was seventh and Matt Crafton 13th for the remaining playoff drivers.

Sauter won the 2016 Truck Series championship but finished second last season.

Formula One

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo snatched pole position from teammate Max Verstappen at the Mexican Grand Prix at Mexico City, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton sits in perfect position in third to win his fifth career Formula One championship.

Verstappen dominated practice and looked primed to become the youngest pole sitter in F1 history. Ricciardo got him at the end of qualifying with a lap of 1 minute, 14.759 seconds in the high altitude at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, edging Verstappen by 0.026 seconds

The Red Bulls got their first front-row pairing since before the era of hybrid engines started in 2014. It’s also Ricciardo’s first pole since his victory in Monaco.

Hamilton is in a prime spot to secure the season championship. He needs only to finish seventh to win a title that would match him with the late Juan Manuel Fangio for second-most in F1 history.

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