Kasey Kahne went out on a somewhat slippery race track with hard tires and an unpredictable wind today and posted a intrepid qualifying lap of 185.644 miles per hour that tentatively put him on the pole at Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's NASCAR NEXTEL Cup 3M Performance 400 presented by Post-it® Picture Paper.
And then he got nervous, real nervous.
It was like constantly looking in a rear view mirror as Kahne watched driver after driver fail to knock him from the summit. But lurking last in the qualifying order was Jeff Gordon, fourth fastest during practice with three front-row starts in the last four races at MIS.
"When you see the No. 24 going last, or the 16 (Greg Biffle), there were a lot of good cars going late and the track stayed really close so I knew that those cars could beat us," Kahne said. "I was hoping the sun wouldn't go down (to cool the track) or anything like that and it didn't, so it was a pretty fair track for all of us and Jeff came really close. I was waiting, thinking, 'maybe he will, maybe he won't.' We ended up winning so definitely I was happy; definitely nervous though. I was holding my breath when he went out."
Gordon made a very ambitious run at Kahne but missed pilfering the pole by two one-hundredths of a second with a speed of 185.644 mph.
"With this wind today you would get a little bit loose down in one and two and tight in three and four so we kind of trimmed the car for one and two and I got through there in awesome shape," Gordon said. "I kept telling myself all the way down the back straightaway, 'Don¿t overdrive it. Don¿t overdrive it.¿ And I didn¿t. I got in there good but I needed to use just a little more brake to get it to turn earlier so I could get back on the gas sooner.
"I knew that¿s where it cost me and I knew it was going to be close. It was actually a lot closer than I thought it was going to be."
The pole was Kahne¿s series-leading fourth of the season. Kahne, fifth in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup points, is tied with Jimmie Johnson for the series lead in victories, each with three.
Gordon led a Hendrick Motorsports parade with teammates Brian Vickers and Johnson qualifying third and fourth-fastest, respectively. Bobby Labonte was fifth fastest, followed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Joe Nemechek and Mark Martin.
Bill Lester became the first African-American driver to compete in a NASCAR Cup race at MIS since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986. Lester, 45, qualified 34th.
He became the first African-American driver in 20 years to qualify for a NASCAR Cup race last March in Atlanta when he started 19th and finished 38th in the Golden Corral 500.
Lester said his objective at Atlanta was to make the race and then get the racing experience by finishing the race. He missed that by just four laps. He wanted to also gain the respect of his competition. He did a whole lot more giving than taking. His objective here Sunday will include much more aggressiveness.
¿This time our objective is to go the whole distance, to go all 400 miles and we want to be on the lead lap," Lester explained. ¿If we do that we¿ll by very satisfied. I continue to be overwhelmed by the attention I¿m getting. It was obviously a little bit more extreme in Atlanta. But still, I¿m humbled that so many people have taken notice of what I¿m doing. I¿m living my dream. I wish I could have been in this position 20 years ago because I was knocking on doors, but the timing wasn¿t right. I¿m just doing the best I can with the situation that has been laid out in front of me.¿
Lester, a regular in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, also will attempt to qualify for tomorrow¿s Con-way Freight 200, scheduled to begin at 3:15 p.m.
Just as Lester was preparing to make his qualifying attempt, he had to take a deep breath and wait some more when Ryan Newman spun, but didn¿t hit the wall on his first qualifying lap.
¿I was loose all the way through the turn and just tried to push it and qualify
with one lap and it just came around on me,¿ said Newman, the track qualifying record holder with a speed of 194.232 mph posted last June.
Reserved Grandstand tickets are still available for Sunday¿s NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series 3M Performance 400 presented by Post-It Picture Paper. Tickets can be purchased by calling 1-800-354-1010 or www.MISpeedway.com. Tickets can also be purchased at the Gate 24 ticket office on-site at MIS.