LONG POND, Pa. - Kyle Busch was thankful for a little cloud cover during his Sprint Cup qualifying run Friday. Now, he hopes the sun will shine on him on race day - for a change - at Pocono Raceway.
With cloudy skies cooling the afternoon track temperature and allowing for more grip on the asphalt racing surface, Busch's No. 18 Toyota picked up the pace considerably to capture the pole position for Sunday's Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500.
Busch completed a lap around the 2.5-mile triangular-shaped speedway in 53.102 seconds, for an average speed of 169.485 m.p.h. That was a noticeable gain over the early-afternoon practice session, when Busch finished fifth on the speed charts at 166.837 m.p.h.
"I feel I can always put together a fast lap, and we've been fast in qualifying here before," said Busch, who started ninth or better in half of his previous 10 starts here. "What I haven't been able to do [at Pocono] is keep up with the changes to the car and the track throughout a race."
One week after watching his brother Kurt win in Charlotte, N.C., Kyle Busch already was guaranteed to make history Sunday, when the 25-year-old will become the youngest driver to reach 200 career starts in NASCAR's top series.
That fact was not lost on Dale Earnhardt Jr., who qualified third at 169.097 m.p.h. in the No. 88 Chevrolet. (Clint Bowyer was second-quickest, piloting the No. 33 Chevrolet at 169.138 m.p.h.)
"He was pretty rough around the edges [at first], so it's pretty incredible to see what he's been able to accomplish in such a short period of time," Earnhardt said of Busch. "As young as he is, there's no limit to what he can accomplish."
Busch has 18 wins and an incredible 93 top-10 finishes, and will start on the pole for the seventh time in his Sprint Cup career on Sunday. But his best showing at Pocono was a fourth-place effort in his 2005 debut here.
"It can be really, really frustrating getting around this place," he said, "so winning here would mean a lot."
Track owners honored. In recognition of their recent $1 million contribution, Pocono Raceway owners Joseph "Doc" and Rose Mattioli were trackside Friday when Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) officials announced that the hospital's Cedar Crest facility will be named the Mattioli Trauma Center.
Dr. Elliot Sussman, LVHN president and chief executive officer, was there to acknowledge the gift, which he said "will raise the quality of trauma care available in our community to an even higher level."
Rose Mattioli said the couple's gesture came from the heart. The Mattiolis' twin great-granddaughters weighed three pounds each when they were born prematurely six years ago, and they survived thanks to specialized care at LVHN's neonatal intensive-care unit.
The track: Pocono Raceway is on Route 115 in Long Pond, Pa. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-476) to Exit 95. Take I-80 east toward Hazleton/Mount Pocono to Exit 284, head south on Route 115 for three miles.
Saturday's on-track events: Sprint Cup Series practice, 10 a.m.; Sprint Cup Series final practice, 11:20 a.m.; Messina Wildlife Animal Stopper 200 ARCA Series race, 1 p.m.
Television: Sprint Cup Series practice (SPEED, 10 a.m.); Sprint Cup Series final practice (SPEED, 11 a.m.); Messina Wildlife Animal Stopper 200 ARCA Series race (SPEED, 4 p.m.).
Tickets: Call 1-800-722-3929 or check the track's Web site at www.poconoraceway.com. - Pete Schnatz