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Saturday, September 17, 2011
Updated: September 18, 11:44 AM ET
Matt Kenseth opens Chase on front row

Associated Press

JOLIET, Ill. -- The opening round in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship won't decide the NASCAR champion.

What it could do, though, is separate the contenders from the pretenders.

"It's so important not to have a bad day in that first race," said five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. "We'll have a pretty good idea of who will be strong and who won't right out of the gate."

The 10-race Chase opens Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway with Matt Kenseth, ranked fourth in the 12-driver field, starting from the pole. It's a prime piece of real estate considering track position is so critical these days.

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Matt Kenseth stands next to his car after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway. Kenseth won the pole for the first race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

With more and more passing done on pit road as opposed to the actual race track, Kenseth will be blessed with the best pit stall and, at least at the start of the race, no traffic as he attempts to open the Chase with a victory.

"I think it is always important and starting up front and having a good pit stall is nice," Kenseth said. "Hopefully, you get a good start and get bonus points and try to keep up with the track a little better."

Kenseth had the fastest qualifying lap with a speed of 183.243 mph in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford. It easily held off Paul Menard, who turned a lap at 183.125 in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, and Kurt Busch, who qualified third at 183.032 in a Penske Racing Dodge.

It's just the sixth pole in 12 full seasons for Kenseth, and second this year.

"My cars have just been fast and driving really good," Kenseth said. "I have always tried really hard. I have probably done a little better job at not overdriving the car. That has been a fault of mine in qualifying in the past, overdriving and driving the corner too hard and messing up the rest of the corner.

"Back in the day when it was easier to pass it probably wasn't as important to us as it is today. Maybe I am a little better at it, but the main thing is the cars have been really fast."

Busch, winner of the inaugural 2004 Chase, was pleased to qualify third.

"It was a great qualifying effort for us. We feel like getting off to a strong start in the Chase is important, and it starts with qualifying," Busch said. "We just can't get ahead of ourselves. Each opportunity that we're out on the track, we have to maximize."

Chase drivers took spots four through six, as Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski kept Kenseth in sight.

Non-Chase drivers Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers were seventh and eighth, and points co-leader Kyle Busch was ninth. His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano, who is not Chase eligible, rounded out the top 10.

Johnson qualified 12th, and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. 19th. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon was 23rd, Tony Stewart qualified 26th and Denny Hamlin was 27th.

Stewart, who struggled through two Friday practice sessions, felt his Chevrolet had improved in part to it being 11 degrees warmer Saturday than it was Friday.

"It was much better than we were yesterday," he said. "Tomorrow is supposed to be even warmer, so that will help us some more."

But Hamlin, an eight-race winner last season who needed the new "wild card" provisional to get a spot in the Chase, seemed discouraged.

"Our cars have not been really fast on the short go all weekend," Hamlin said. "So, we've got to figure out what we have to do to get a little bit more of the speed that we need."

Kevin Harvick was the lowest qualifying Chase driver at 30th.

Because Sunday's race is on a 1.5-mile track, it could be a solid indicator of how the championship field will shape up. Five of the 10 Chase races are run on intermediate-length tracks, and if drivers struggle at Chicagoland, it could be a bad omen of what's to come in their title bids.

But Kenseth said the remaining intermediate tracks still have unique qualities that present different challenges.

"I know we always group them together because they are the same size track and there are guys that seem to run good at all of them or not as good," Kenseth said. "They are all really a lot different."