Clint Bowyer had to fight his way into the NASCAR Cup playoffs.
Now it appears the other championship-eligible drivers might have to fight him off.
The 15th-seeded veteran from Kansas put down a fast lap of 178.926 mph to earn the pole position for Sunday’s South Point 400 playoff opener and lead a Stewart-Haas Racing sweep of the first four positions during Saturday qualifying runs at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The pole achieved under a blazing afternoon sun was just the third of Bowyer’s long career and his first in 431 starts. It came 12 years to the day he earned the first starting spot at New Hampshire and went on to win the race.
“That day was celebrated rough because Jack Daniel’s was my sponsor then — thank God I was a lot younger,” said the 40-year-old driver of the No. 14 Ford who was as quick on the track as he is with a quip.
“Beats the hell out of me, guys. I’m as shocked as you are. Tons of fun, obviously bragging rights for the guys — I mean, 1-2-3-4 for Stewart-Haas Racing. I think that shows a lot about our hard work, dedication and focus.”
Daniel Suarez, who was edged out of a playoff spot during the regular-season finale at Indianapolis, will start alongside Bowyer in the front row, with red-hot 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola forming an all-Stewart-Haas second row.
Las Vegas brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, the 2019 regular-season champion, will roll off fifth and 20th, respectively.
Kyle Busch is the only driver in LVMS’ 23-race history to win from the pole position. So as much as setting the fast time meant to Bowyer on Saturday, it’s not certain how it will translate to Sunday’s race.
“We’ve seen in our sport before where cars that are bad fast on qualifying day sometimes can’t hold it for 400 miles around here,” Bowyer said. “That’s going to be a tall order. The same guys you have to beat weekend after weekend are the same guys you’re going to have beat (Sunday).”
Those would include Kyle Busch, the first driver to win four 2019 races who has led a season-high 1,166 laps; his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates and fellow four-race winners Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.; and the potent Penske Racing duo of defending series champion Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, the 2013 NASCAR champ.
Logano won this year’s spring race at LVMS. Keselowski has finished first in Las Vegas three times in the past seven years, including last year in a wreckfest on a hot and slippery track.
With Sunday’s starting time pushed back to late afternoon, the track should develop grip once the shadows come. But Kyle Busch said the race probably will be decided how most races are decided under new rules that allow the cars to run closer together but make it more difficult to pass:
Fast pit stops and bold restarts.
“It’s certainly a different game than what it’s been,” said the 2015 series champion, who is seeking his fifth consecutive berth in NASCAR’s final four that will race for the cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
“In years past, you could kind of take it easy on restarts and let everything kind of formulate and single-file out some, and then you could pick your way up through there. You can’t really do that now.”
What: South Point 400
When: 4:15 p.m. Sunday
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: KBAD-AM (920)
Pole: Clint Bowyer
Favorite: Kyle Busch, 9-2
Tickets: Starting at $49; lvms.com
7:30 a.m.–noon — NASCAR Racing Experience drives and rides
Noon — Ticket gates, Neon Garage and VIP suites open
2 p.m. — South Point 400 Cup Series driver and crew chief meeting (Neon Garage/pass required)
3:20 — South Point 400 Cup Series driver introductions
4:15 — South Point 400 Cup Series race
7:30 (est.) — Speedway Children’s Charities Track Walk