SPARTA, Ky. — The questions during NASCAR's Sprint Cup qualifying Friday were: How many drivers would raise Kentucky Speedway's record? And by how much?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. provided the answer of the eight that broke it, clocking 183.636 mph to wrest the mark from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and the pole for tonight's Quaker State 400.
Earnhardt's speed was nearly 2 mph faster than Johnson's 181.818 mph set last year.
On Friday, Johnson had just turned a lap at 183.144 mph to hold off Ryan Newman (182.254). Earnhardt then set the standard in the No. 88 Chevy and survived several attempts to unseat him before coming away with his 12th career pole and first at Kentucky.
Carl Edwards (183.306 mph) grabbed the outside front in the No. 99 Ford. Johnson settled for third with Kyle Busch (182.593) fourth in a Toyota. Marcos Ambrose (182.587) qualified fifth in a Ford and will start alongside Denny Hamlin, whose No. 11 Toyota ran 182.340 mph. The final two over 182 mph were Newman and Brad Keselowski (182.192).
Danica Patrick, who has been taking criticism from Kyle Petty this week, qualified 29th at 178.944.
Drivers felt as if a track record was possible with NASCAR's new Gen 6 car, even on Kentucky's bumpy surface. Anticipation grew even more with cooler-than-expected temperatures and intermittent clouds.
"I feel good," said Johnson, who checked his No. 48 Chevy for damage after hitting one of the bumps and going airborne. "I felt (turns) one and two went really well. (Turns) three and four, I thought maybe I could have been a little faster through there."
Earnhardt, sixth after the final practice, soon grabbed his upfront view and the record as all the elements fell into place for his first pole since September at Richmond.
"The cloud cover at least gave us a bit of speed," Earnhardt said. "Of course, cooler track temps gives the car more grip, and we definitely had the better situation of anyone in practice with that scenario."
Keselowski, the defending race and Cup season champion, enters tonight's race in a precarious points position. He is ninth (only the top 10 are assured Chase berths) with no race wins (the two drivers ranked Nos. 11-20 in points with the most victories earn wild-card berths). But he won here last year and finished seventh in 2011. He has led 147 laps in the two Cup races at Kentucky.
And, of course now that the weather is hot, everyone looks around for "Smoke." Of Tony Stewart's 48 Cup wins, 23 have come in June, July and August. And he likes this track despite its faults.
"It's a struggle to get the car to go through the bumps really well," Stewart said. "It's bumpier than anywhere that we go as far as mile-and-a-halves are concerned. But that's what's fun about it, too, is that it's got character and makes us have to work on making it go through the bumps better."