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Stephens: Penske the team to beat Saturday

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By Brad Stephens

SPARTA – Joey Logano was promised precipitation that arrived too late to Kentucky Speedway Friday.

The driver of the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford was leading after the first round of qualifying, turning in a 29.049-second lap in the face of imminent rain.

Logano again led the second round, completing a lap in 28.783 seconds.

With rain about to hit the speedway, the fate of the decisive third qualifying round was unsure. In that case, the results from the second round would've determined the field for Saturday's Quaker State 400.

But the green flag on round three flew before the green on the radar could hit the track.

And in that final round, Logano's Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski turned in a sparkling 28.603 to take the pole from Logano, who was second with a 28.850.

Much to Logano's chagrin, rain started falling soon after he sat down for his post-qualifying press conference in the infield media center.

“We won the first two sessions and I was like, 'Isn't it going to rain?' Logano laughed. “Then of course it waits to rain and we come in second.”

Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, won this battle over his teammate. But Saturday night it may be both of them looking down at the rest of the field.

The Penske pair seems to have figured out the right setup for the self-proclaimed “roughest track in NASCAR.” Kentucky is known for its bumpy surface and can leave drivers searching for grip.

“It's such a tricky track,” Logano said of Kentucky Speedway, hosting its fourth Sprint Cup race Saturday (7:30 p.m., TNT). “The way you get over the bumps and the way you hit the bumps – if you miss your line just by a foot and you hit the bump the wrong way, the next thing you know your car is pointed the wrong direction.”

Penske racing was dominant enough in qualifying. Then Friday night in the Nationwide race Keselowski led 138 of the first 148 laps before a pit road speeding penalty cost him what looked like a certain win.

Keselowski had such a dominant car that he went from 16th with 43 laps left to second in the final stages, where he finally came up short in his attempt to pass race winner Kevin Harvick.

The Sprint Cup cars are obviously far different from their Nationwide cousins, but Friday night's race seemed like an extension of Sprint qualifying.

The Penske performance was also notable when compared to how other prominent teams fared Friday.

Hendrick Motorsports has been the Sprint Cup's dominant team in 2014, with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., running one-two-three in the points standings.

Gordon qualified the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet third (28.903 seconds). But Johnson (29.402) and Earnhardt (29.540) will have to overcome starting positions of 25th and 29th respectively if they're to win Saturday.

Roush Fenway struggled Friday, with Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle qualifying 23rd and 24th.

Joe Gibbs Racing cars Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, both former Quaker State 400 winners, each didn't make the cutoff for the last qualifying round. They'll start 14th and 18th.

Penske is the team the rest of the field must beat Saturday night. But as Keselowski noted, qualifying up front isn't the hard part – hanging on to the top spot for 267 laps is.

“Qualifying is great, but at the end of the week or the start of next week, nobody talks about who won the pole,” said Keselowski, the 2012 race champ. “It's who won the race. We want to be that guy.”