LONG POND, Pa. - Kasey Kahne found his groove at Pocono Raceway yesterday.

By piloting his No. 9 Dodge over a freshly paved portion of the 2.5-mile tri-oval, Kahne found the extra bit of speed he needed to capture the pole position for tomorrow's Pocono 500.

"If I hadn't run the patch, I wouldn't have won the pole," Kahne said after guiding the Gillett Evernham Motorsports machine at an average speed of 170.219 m.p.h.

The "patch," as it is called by the competitors, is a strip of new asphalt - measuring 3,800 feet long by 15 feet wide - that runs along the back stretch and through the track's third turn.

The repair was made in November after track owner Joseph "Doc" Mattioli discovered cracks in the racing surface. It was probably impossible for him to know at the time what an impact the resurfacing would have seven months later, with NASCAR bringing its current-generation winged stock car to Pocono for the first time.

"There's so much more grip in the patch than there is on the rest of the track that I think it's going to make for a better race," Kahne said. "I really think it's going to help the cars get down the front stretch faster."

It is Kahne's first pole of the season, second in nine visits to Pocono, and the 15th of his career.

Jimmie Johnson, who qualified second in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at 169.856 m.p.h., agreed that the "patch" would allow drivers to carry more speed through the final turn.

"I'm excited about the patch and hopeful that it gives us another passing zone," Johnson said. "Unless somebody made a big mistake, there really wasn't anywhere to pass over there. I don't see it causing any problems."

Sprint Cup Series leader Kyle Busch qualified 10th and then took off for a flight to Texas Motor Speedway to compete in last night's Craftsman Truck Series race.

Rumor mill.

Jamie McMurray had a lot to celebrate this week.

After blowing out 32 candles on his birthday cake on Tuesday, McMurray will make his 200th career start on NASCAR's top circuit tomorrow, when he rolls off 22d in the Pocono 500.

But instead of balloons and party hats, McMurray's arrival at Pocono Raceway was met with questions about his future employment. While the Roush Fenway Racing crew prepared his No. 26 Ford Fusion for qualifying, McMurray tried to squelch speculation that he's being pushed out the door - although there has been no official response from team owner Jack Roush or team president Geoff Smith.

"I never asked to get out of my contract, and they never said they were going to release me from my contract," McMurray said of a recent meeting with Roush and Smith.

Coming off just his second top-10 finish of the season, a 10th-place effort on Sunday at Dover International Speedway, McMurray is 22d in the Sprint Cup Series standings and 259 points out of a playoff spot.