Rain washes out NASCAR qualifying at Las Vegas, puts Keselowski on the pole

Brad Keselowski learned Friday that a 27-pound sterling-silver trophy and a $5.7 million paycheck aren’t the only benefits that come with winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Keselowski, the 2012 series champion, was awarded the pole for Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when steady showers washed out the day’s qualifying session and forced NASCAR to award starting positions based on last year’s final points standings. It marked the first time in 16 years that Sprint Cup qualifying at LVMS was canceled because of weather.

“That is a really good deal,” Keselowski said of his front-row starting position. “It is one of the perks, I guess, of being the champion in the first few races. (This) is the first time I have had a decent starting position in a rainout.

“Obviously, whenever you can start up front, it’s a big deal and you get the first pit stall and all those things that make a big difference on pit road.”

Keselowski won five races en route to the title in 2012 but did not earn a pole and had only two poles in 127 career starts before Friday. Based on two fourth-place finishes in the first two races this season, Keselowski said he thinks he can keep his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford out front during Sunday’s 267-lap race.

“The way our car has been running the last two weeks, and off of what I saw in practice (Thursday), I feel like we are in position to hopefully keep that (lead) for a very long time in the race and hopefully close it out,” he said. “We have been really close to doing that the last two weeks. Hopefully, this will be the catalyst we need to close it out.”

Starting alongside Keselowski on the front row will be Clint Bowyer, last year’s series runner-up. Jimmie Johnson, a four-time race winner in Las Vegas, will start third. Kasey Kahne, who set the track’s qualifying record last year at 190.456 mph, will start fourth.

Defending race winner Tony Stewart will start ninth. Las Vegas natives Kyle and Kurt Busch will start 13th and 24th.

Daytona 500 pole winner Danica Patrick will start 37th in the 43-car field. She brushed off recent criticism that the new Gen-6 cars will make it more difficult for drivers to pass in Sunday’s race.

“(Track position) is always important,” Patrick said. “Everybody is so good in Cup that it takes a lot to pass cars. You just have to get creative sometimes with your pit stops. Whether it’s strategy or not, I feel like if you have a good car, you will be able to pass.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., seeking his first Cup victory at LVMS in 14 career races, will start 12th and actually seemed to welcome the rain that pelted the speedway all morning and canceled qualifying.

“We had more than enough practice, really, so I’m not too worried about what we didn’t get to do (Friday) because (Thursday’s practice) was way more than we needed, to be honest,” he said. “I just hope we get a couple laps Saturday just to make sure everything is cool and we’ll be ready to go.”

Because of Friday’s rainstorm, qualifying today for the Nationwide Series Sam’s Town 300 also was canceled. Qualifying was scheduled to begin at 10:05 a.m. today, with the 200-lap race to begin at 1:15 p.m.

The lineup will be determined on points standings from last year as well as other variables. Brian Vickers will start from the pole based on owners’ points standings.

Today’s schedule starts with a Nationwide practice from 8 a.m. to 9:30, followed by Sprint Cup practices from 9:40 to 10:40 and 11:35 to 12:30 p.m., with the Sam’s Town 300 at 1:15.

Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Brian Hilderbrand can be reached at bhilderbrand@reviewjournal.com.