Kenseth on pole for All-Star race

Associated Press • May 19, 2007 at 1:12 AM

CONCORD, N.C. - Matt Kenseth rolled into his pit box and drove away 11.6 seconds later - the quickest four-tire pit stop of qualifying - to overtake Jimmie Johnson on Friday night and claim the pole for the Nextel All-Star Challenge.

"I will tell you one thing, when they drop that jack on the right side and they have that thing on the left side, you better have that thing in gear and be ready," Kenseth said. "Because that left side is not up that long."

Kenseth completed three laps and the pit stop in 2 minutes, 1.40 seconds at Lowe's Motor Speedway for his second All-Star pole. Johnson, the defending race champion, was nearly two seconds slower and will start on the outside of row one tonight.

"Those guys definitely outperformed us," Johnson said.

Kurt Busch qualified third, followed by Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton for the non-points race, which includes four 20-lap segments.

Kenseth's crew lost in the second round of Wednesday's Pit Crew Challenge, but was dominant Friday.

"Our stops are so smooth this year," said Kenseth, who won the All-Star race in 2004. "Pit road this year is probably better than it's ever been for us."

Kyle Busch qualified sixth, followed by Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt. Jr.

Qualifying, which started in twilight and ended in near darkness, gave teams that went out later on the cooler track an advantage. But the unique format placed great importance on the pit stop. Eighteen drivers are already eligible for the All-Star race. The rest will compete in today's preliminary Nextel Open, a 40-lap, two segment race whose winner and second-place cars will be transferred to the main race.

Carl Edwards won the pole for the Open with a speed of 187.487 mph in regular qualifying runs. David Ragan (186.284) will start second, followed by Dave Blaney, David Gilliland and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Edwards said if he makes the All-Star race, he'll donate his winnings to charity - even it's a portion of the $1 million first-place prize.

"I was so bummed out about not making the All-Star race that I thought if I make it (through the Open) it's going to be icing on the cake, a fun time," Edwards said. "Hopefully we'll the win the thing and donate a bunch of money."

The struggles continued for Michael Waltrip and his new Toyota team. Waltrip, who has failed to qualify for 10 consecutive races, hit the wall after losing control of his car in the third turn of Open qualifying. He'll be forced to use a backup car - without practice time - and start from the rear of the field.

David Stremme and Aric Almirola, a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, also wrecked in Open qualifying.

Mark Martin, already in the All-Star race, blew an engine in practice and then spun the car in qualifying. He avoided hitting the wall, but will start from the back of the field.

JOINING FORCES: Dale Earnhardt Inc. has merged its engine program with Richard Childress Racing, an alliance that likely will help DEI return to prominence.

DEI has been in a slow decline since Dale Earnhardt's 2001 death, and star driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving at the end of the season because he doesn't think he can win championships with the team.

His stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt, hopes that merging engine programs with RCR will strengthen the organization.

"This backs up what Teresa said last week - her commitment is solid, and her No. 1 priority is to win championships," John Story, general manager of DEI, said Friday. "This is the first of a few big things we are going to do to continue moving toward that goal of winning championships."

DEI officials believe the merger shows the team is resilient and will move on without Earnhardt Jr.

"When you get knocked down like we did the last week and a half, you come back fighting," said Richie Gilmore, director of motorsports.

"We wish Dale Jr. all the luck in the world. But we have to take our company to the front and take it to the point of winning championships. We don't want to back up on our goals at all."

The first collaborative engine is scheduled to be used at Daytona International Speedway in July, and Earnhardt Jr. believes the partnership will strengthen the team.

"I think that's a great move," he said. "I was telling Richie this time a year ago that all the Chevy teams ought to consolidate to one engine program. Depending on the teams you brought in it would cut the cost tremendously.

"I think it's an awesome idea because the sport's getting so costly now. As far as performance wise, both of 'em got a little to offer each other."

Childress said last week that he's interested in signing Earnhardt Jr., and the engine deal with DEI isn't expected to affect those efforts.

"That wouldn't impact my decision," Junior said. "Absolutely not."

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