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Reigning NASCAR champion Ryan Blaney wins pole for Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway

Ryan Blaney has won the pole for Sunday’s NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The reigning Cup Series champion covered the 0.533-mile concrete track in Bristol, Tennessee, in 15.356 seconds on Saturday. He edged Josh Berry for the No. 1 spot and will lead the field to the green flag in the Food City 500.

It was Blaney’s 10th career pole in 11 seasons and his first since the spring race at Richmond Raceway in 2022.

“I think the track kind of caught everybody by surprise, honestly,” Blaney said. “The (lap) time fall off, the grip loss behind the wheel was incredible, huge. It was who cannot mess up a lap and still put a decent time down.

“It was fun. It was fun working through it. I wish I could even do it over again to try to make our car even better because I think there was still some more out there.”

NASCAR returned Bristol to normal for the first time in four years for the spring race. The famed short track added red clay each of the last three years. Reviews were mixed, and as the novelty wore off, sub-par racing inside the bullring overshadowed any excitement that came with the series running on dirt for the first time since 1970.

In an effort to improve the racing and make sure the track has several equal lanes, workers put down a resin-based traction compound through the turns near the inside portion of the oval. It seemed far from perfect.

“I think someone pee-peed in the Goodyear rubber mixture, I’m not really sure,” driver Denny Hamlin said. “It’s definitely really different. It’s kind of enjoyable ’cause everyone’s so out in left field right now.

“It’s certainly different to be the same tire (from 2023). I’m not really sure (about) the mixture of the resin and the tire. It’s throwing all of us for a loop in the short term.”

Blaney made the best of it in his No. 12 Ford for Team Penske. Berry was second in qualifying in another Ford for Stewart Haas Racing.

Hamlin was third in a Toyota, followed by Joey Logano and Chase Elliott. Chase Briscoe, Michael McDowell, William Byron, Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson rounded out the top 10 in the final qualifying session.

The “Next Gen” car has been far from ideal on short tracks since its inception in 2022. NASCAR tested a new rules package at Phoenix Raceway in December that showed promised but hardly provided a quick fix.

So it’s anybody’s guess as to what the racing will look like Sunday. This much is certain: Twenty-seven of the 123 Cup races held at Bristol have been won from the pole. That 21.95 winning percentage is the most of any starting position on the grid.

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing