Larson, Truex will start 1-2 in FireKeepers 400

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — Amid changing weather conditions and blistering speeds, Kyle Larson qualified on the pole for the FireKeepers 400 NASCAR cup race Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

Larson, second in the Monster Energy cup series, is hot at MIS.

He won the last cup race on the track, the Pure Michigan 400, in August.

“Getting the pole definitely adds some confidence,” Larson said. “But I’ve had this race circled since last year.”

NASCAR Cup Series leader Martin Truex Jr. will start with Larson on the front row.

One point separates the two drivers in the standings. Truex has two wins on the season, and Larson one.

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The other top-10 qualifiers were: Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth and Chase Elliott.

The manufacturers for the top-10 drivers were Chevrolet, Toyota, Ford, Toyota, Toyota, Ford, Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota and Chevrolet.

Brad Keselowski, of Rochester Hills, still looking for his first cup win at his home track, qualified 12th, right behind his old nemesis Kevin Harvick.

Erik Jones, of Byron, is the top qualifying rookie, in 14th, after his third-place finish Sunday at Pocono — his career best.

“It was a good qualifying round for us,” Larson said. “We were fast in practice, pretty good in the first round, ran a little bit faster in the second round and then picked up a lot of speed in that final round.”

He credited his crew chief Chad Johnston and his team, Chip Ganassi Racing, for finding more pace in the car.

“Chad and the engineers made some good adjustments there for the final round, and it was fun to go fast out there and have a lot of grip,” Larson said.

Larson’s two-year-old son Nolan, who had accompanied him to the winner’s media conference in August, has gained some verbal ability in eight months.

Sitting proudly on his father’s lap, smiling at the assembled media, little Nolan commandeered the microphone and said, “Good job!”

The drivers say the single most important factor at MIS is “commitment.” By that, they mean the willingness to build extreme speed down the front-stretch, into Turn 1, and remain late on the accelerator on what many consider the fastest track in NASCAR.

On Friday in qualifying, commit they did.

Several drivers went into Turn 1 in excess of 215 miles per hour, with the top speed at 218.

In fact, the top 14 qualifiers were all over 200 miles per hour.

Truex expressed happiness with the performance of his car, but puzzlement at a recent spate of second places.

“Little disappointed there,” Truex said. “But Kyle went out late and got us, so it was a good day.

“Love racing here at Michigan, and hopefully we have a good day.”

Before qualifying for the NASCAR Cup race, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports announced his contract is extended for three years, taking him through 2022.

“I’ve said it many times,” Johnson, 41, said. “I’ve very content with where I’m at in the race car and just truly enjoy competing and love being on the track.

“So, to have a three-year extension makes me smile and makes me excited about the future, and just can’t wait to get in the car today and get out there and get to work.

“I’ve said it before and continued to say that when the fire does go out, I will step down.”

But Johnson made it plain: The fire burns.

“I just know that I’ve got three more years of trying to go out there and win championships and win races.

“I’m as hungry as I’ve ever been and as focused and dedicated on doing my job.”

Johnson is tied with Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven championships.

To surpass both men would be among the greatest accomplishments in motor sports.

Johnson is currently seventh in the standings, but he has three wins.

The FireKeepers 400 is the end of the first half of the season.

“It’s hard to ignore where I sit on the wins list and not let my competitive spirit kick in and want more,” Johnson said.

“Certainly, I would like to climb further up the ladder there. Eight championships. I would love to stand along at that.

“For me, it’s really about racing. I just love to race.

“The experience I have with my engineers, with (crew chief) Chad Knaus, that bond and that experience combined with the experience of driving and competing, there’s a high in that I’ve chased my entire career.

“That’s still why I get in that race car.

“Someday, when that fades, that is when I will step down.”

FireKeepers Casino 400

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn

Support race: Xfinity Irish Hills 250, 1:30 Saturday

TV: Both races on FS1

Defending champion: Joey Logano