By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DOVER, Del. -- Before this year, Kyle Busch had never won more than three Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series poles in a single season.
Then the floodgates opened in 2017.
Busch has become the top qualifier in the series with eight Coors Light Pole Awards this season, but the success was hardly instantaneous. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota didn't win his first 2017 pole until the 13th race of the season, at Dover International Speedway.
Including that event, Busch has topped qualifying for eight of the last 17 races. On Friday afternoon, he narrowly missed a sweep of Dover poles this year when he qualified second to Martin Truex Jr. by .038 seconds.
Fortunately for Busch, the advent of stage racing, where qualifying position often leads to additional points in the first segment of a race, has dovetailed perfectly with the driver's newfound prowess in time trials.
Perhaps that's deliberate, though Busch isn't sure why his pole count has improved so dramatically.
"Obviously it's great that we have that," Busch said. "I don't know why the breakout is. But being able to qualify up front each and every week and having that speed right off the bat gives you a chance of scoring more stage points.
"I feel like that's one of the things that's helped us this year of staying further up in the running the entire season long and being able to get some of those stage wins. It's just a testament to (crew chief) Adam Stevens and the group of guys and everything we've got going on.
"We unload pretty close right off the truck every single week, and that certainly helps a lot of things out where we're not chasing ourselves as soon as we get off the truck."
TRUEX JR. LIKES HIS VIEW FROM THE TOP
What is it like to come to the race track knowing you'll have one of the fastest cars every single week -- even at venues that historically haven't been your best?
Martin Truex Jr. now knows the answer to that question.
The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota has enjoyed a dream season in 2017, winning a series-best five times and pacing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in laps led (1,835), stages won (19) and playoff points accumulated (59).
Truex got a taste of success last year when he won four races and led 1,809 laps, but the surfeit of strong finishes hasn't dulled his appetite for more.
And at this point, he seems to have inherited the expectation of speed from seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who was the dominant force in stock car racing from 2006 through 2010, when he won five of his titles in consecutive years.
Truex, on the other hand, won three races in his first 10 full seasons of Cup racing, before his pairing with crew chief Cole Pearn at Furniture Row provided the critical mass for a meteoric ascent to the top of the sport.
And Truex is enjoying the view.
"I actually think I've talked to Jimmie about this before, you know, years ago at Champion's Week or something," Truex said. "I think every driver thinks about it at this level when you get here. It takes so many things to come together to be in a position that I've been in the past two years really, so, yeah, I'm very thankful and I'm definitely enjoying it.
"I'm trying to enjoy every single week one at a time. At the same time, there's that chance at a championship out there, so you can't lose focus and say, 'Well, this is going great. We're just going to show up to the track and everything is going to be fine.' You still have to work hard. It's still difficult."
Truex underscored the importance of keeping his eye on the larger prize.
"I think we've done a good job of just staying focused and getting through all that stuff and continuing to come to the race track and perform, because you never know when it's going to end or when things could change," he said.
"So just try to take advantage of the opportunities right now, and it's certainly been a lot of fun, but I think the more you win, the more success you have, the more you want it, I feel like, and so we're going after it every week."
Kevin Harvick paced Saturday's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice with the only sub-23-second lap of the session (22.998 seconds at 156.535 mph). Dale Earnhardt Jr., who qualified seventh on Friday, was second on the speed chart at 156.413 mph. Last week's New Hampshire winner, Kyle Busch, had the fastest average speed for a run of 10 consecutive laps, running 155.165 mph to edge fellow Playoff driver Jamie McMurray (154. 860 mph). ...
Title contenders occupied the top nine spots in final practice for Sunday's Apache Warrior 400 (on NBCSN at 2 p.m. ET) at Dover, with Hendrick Motorsports drivers Chase Elliott (157.363 mph) and Jimmie Johnson (156.904 mph) leading the way. Harvick was third fastest at 156.897 mph, followed by Kyle Larson at 156.658 mph.