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Kyle Busch hopes to turn the tables after pole run at Martinsville

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Hoping to reverse the outcome of this year’s spring race at Martinsville Speedway, Kyle Busch took the first step on Saturday afternoon, winning the pole position for Sunday’s First Data 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the first race in the Round of 8 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

Driving the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Busch navigated the .526-mile short track in 19.673 seconds (96.254 seconds) in the final round of knockout qualifying to edge fellow title contender Clint Bowyer (96.122 mph) for the top starting position by .027 seconds.

The series leader entering the penultimate round of the Playoffs, Busch earned his fourth Busch Pole Award of the season, his third at Martinsville and the 31st of his career. But it was only a first step.

Now comes the business of trying to beat Bowyer, who nipped Busch by 1.146 seconds in the sixth race of the regular season. After taking the top spot from Busch on Lap 387, Bowyer led the final 114 laps to seal the victory.

To start the process of swapping finishing positions with Bowyer, Busch claimed the No. 1 pit stall, the closest to the exit from pit road.

“Obviously, track position is important, but what’s more important is the opportunity to have that pit box,” Busch said. “That No. 1 pit box will hopefully do us good, we can have a great day, run up front much of the day and finish there, more importantly.

“Earlier this year, with Clint here, we were role-reversed, and hopefully we can keep it the way it is right now, this time 24 hours from now.”

With an average starting position of 14.0 this season, Bowyer was elated to put forth a strong effort in time trials.

“Good God, after the way I have been qualifying lately, it feels like I’m sitting on four poles,” said Bowyer, who enters the race tied for fifth in the series standings, facing a cut to the top four drivers two weeks hence at Phoenix. “We’re on the front row, man.

“When you won here in the spring, you know you have a shot. It is cool weather, kind of the same conditions. Obviously, it wasn’t the pole and Kyle was faster. Kyle is really good at laying laps down. I like the Sunday afternoon drives.”

Bowyer barely made it to the front row, edging Denny Hamlin (96.112 mph) for the second spot on the grid by .002 seconds. Ryan Blaney, who ran the fastest lap of time trials in the first round, qualified fourth, followed by playoff drivers Aric Almirola, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch.

Joey Logano was 11th fastest in the final round. Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender William Byron secured the 12th starting spot after bumping playoff driver Kevin Harvick to 13th with 23 seconds left in the second round.

Chase Elliott, a two-time winner in this year’s Playoffs, qualified 21st in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

With just under nine minutes left in the opening round, Bubba Wallace wheel-hopped the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet into Turn 3, spun into the outside wall and damaged the car beyond repair. Wallace will start from the rear of the field in a backup car.