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Kyle Larson Express earns second straight pole, Danica Patrick to start sixth

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Kyle Larson continues to lead the way in NASCAR — both literally and figuratively.

The current NASCAR Cup points leader will also start Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 race at Sonoma Raceway from the pole for the second straight race, having done so in last week’s eventual win at Michigan International Speedway.

“This is cool to get a pole on a road course in my home state,” Larson told Fox Sports 1. “This is the closest track to Sacramento and Elk Grove, where I grew up, so lots of friends and family here.”

And to make things even sweeter, Larson (qualified with a field-best speed of 95.295 mph) will start Sunday’s race alongside Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray, who qualified on the outside of the front row with his own effort of 95.204 mph.

“I thought I did a really good job,” McMurray told FS1. “I don’t feel like I gave up, or that there was a corner that stuck out. Overall, it was a really good lap, but Kyle just got a little bit more.”

It was also Larson’s third pole of 2017; he also started from the front at Fontana (where he also won) in March.

Here’s the rest of the top 10 qualifiers:

Row 2: Martin Truex Jr. will start third, alongside Kyle Busch, still searching for his first Cup win since last year’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Row 3: A.J. Allmendinger starts fifth alongside Danica Patrick, who had the best qualifying effort of all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers.

It was Patrick’s best Cup qualifying effort since starting fourth at Charlotte in May 2014, and her third-best Cup qualifying effort ever. It also marked the sixth time since she joined SHR that she out-ran all of her teammates, per RacingInsights.com.

“I feel like I can drive this place in my sleep just because I’ve driven so many laps here over the years,”Patrick told FS1. “Man, I hope Sunday’s good and everything falls right. It’s great, it’s nice, it’s been a tough go of it this year. It feels good to have a good starting spot and let’s hope we start clean and have a smooth day.”

Row 4: Ryan Blaney will start seventh, next to Chase Elliott, who was forced to go to backup car after wrecking in practice Friday.

Row 5: Chris Buescher starts ninth, his best career qualifying effort, alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Only 38 cars are qualified for Sunday’s race. Matt Kenseth didn’t get an attempt in Saturday, so he’ll start from the back of the pack.

Click here for the full qualifying field results.

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Ryan Blaney gives Cup Series fifth first-time winner in two seasons

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The NASCAR record books have changed a lot in the last two months.

When Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag to win Sunday’s Pocono 400, it continued an avalanche of first-time winners in the Cup Series.

Blaney is the third first-time winner in the last five races and the fifth in the last two years.

The current stretch began May 7 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won at Talladega, claiming his first victory in five full-time seasons on the circuit.

Two races later in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 28, Austin Dillon ended his long wait by successfully saving enough fuel to win the longest race in NASCAR. In the process, he also took the No. 3 to victory lane for the first time in the Cup Series since 2000.

Two weeks later, Blaney took Wood Brothers Racing to victory lane for just the third time since the turn of the century.

But the current trend of first-time winners began in Pocono last year on August 1. Chris Buescher, then driving for Front Row Motorsports, was in the lead under caution when rain and fog forced the race to be called on Lap 138. Unlike the other recent first timers, Buescher’s win came in just his 27th Cup start.

Three races later, Kyle Larson began to establish himself in the Cup Series by winning at Michigan International Speedway. The victory came in Larson’s third full-time season in the Cup Series.

Before their wins, the Cup circuit experienced a relatively long drought of first-time visitors to victory lane.

Before Buescher, the last first-timer was AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen International in August 2014, a stretch of 70 races between first-time winners.

A month before that, Aric Almirola was the winner of the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

And before Almirola, the Cup series went two full seasons without a first-time winner. That drought was after five drivers broke through in 2011.

Trevor Bayne started off that year in the biggest way possible, winning the Daytona 500 in just his second Cup start. He would be joined that year by Regan Smith (Southern 500), David Ragan (Coke Zero 400), Paul Menard (Brickyard 400) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).

With Blaney’s win, it puts a little more pressure on his fellow “young guns” to win. NASCAR is still waiting for the breakthrough of 2016 Rookie of the Year Chase Elliott and rookies Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and new arrival Darrell Wallace Jr.

“Ryan took that (first win) crown from us,” Jones said Sunday after finishing third. “It is great for the sport, honestly. I’m usually not very happy to see other people win, but I was happy to see Ryan win. It was really cool for him, and just really cool to see him get the win. I know how excited he probably is right now, and it really makes the other young guys, me, Chase, Daniel (Suarez), all feel like we do have a shot to go up and do it.”

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Today’s Cup race at Pocono: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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Joe Gibbs Racing continues to look for its first points win of the season but has Kyle Busch on the pole for the second consecutive race. Busch also posted the fastest lap in the Saturday’s final practice session.

Here are the particulars for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command for drivers to start engines will be given at 3:07 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 3:18 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 160 laps (400 miles) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 50. Stage 2 ends on Lap 100. 

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Cup garage opens at 9:30 a.m. The drivers meeting is at 1 p.m. Driver introductions are at 2:30 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Lauren Hart will perform the Anthem at 3:02 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race at 3 p.m. Its coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com. MRN’s coverage begins at 2 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 84 degrees at race time with a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Kurt Busch led the final 32 laps to win this event a year ago. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second. Brad Keselowski placed third. Chris Buescher won the rain-shortened race in August. Keselowski was second. Regan Smith placed third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for starting lineup

Stage racing has made an impact but qualifying remains key to Cup success

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Even with how stages have altered strategy and the racing this year, the importance of qualifying remains evident in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Seven of the top 10 in points entering Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway rank in the top 10 in average starting spot. Points leader Martin Truex Jr. ranks second in average starting spot. Brad Keselowski, who has the best average starting spot (6.679), ranks seventh in the points.

Seven of the 13 races this season were won by a driver who started in the top five.

Qualifying at Pocono is scheduled to begin at 4:15 p.m. ET today.

The past two races have been won by a driver who started outside the top 10. Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 after starting 22nd. Jimmie Johnson qualified 14th last weekend at Dover but actually started at the rear after the team made a gear change before the race.

Rookie Ty Dillon, who had a strong run going until he was collected in the overtime crash last week at Dover, said qualifying remains a focus for his team.

Qualifying has probably been our toughest challenge all year just making sure we get good track position,’’ said Ty Dillon, whose average starting spot of 22.077 ranks 24th in the series. “We start anywhere from 20th to 28th every week. It’s just not been our strong suit, but we have raced really well. 

“The thing about qualifying is it is raw speed. It’s just a different level when you come to the Cup Series and qualify. It’s harder than anything you ever do.’’ 

Rookie Daniel Suarez, whose average starting spot of 15.846 ranks 16th in the series, says he sees progress with his team in the area.

“Track position is important,’’ Suarez said. “I feel like last week we made some gains. I honestly feel like every weekend we have been getting better and better. We are still a new team, a growing team, and I really feel like every weekend we are getting stronger and stronger and racing in the top 10.’’

Here is a look at how drivers rank based on their average starting spot this season:

(Some drivers, such as Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson, among others, are further down the list because they’ve missed qualifying after failing to get through inspection and started toward the rear, impacting their average.)

6.679 — Brad Keselowski

8.308 — Martin Truex Jr.

8.769 — Kevin Harvick

9.769 — Kyle Busch

9.846 — Jamie McMurray

9.923 — Matt Kenseth

10.000 — Ryan Blaney

10.154 — Chase Elliott

11.154 — Denny Hamlin

11.154 — Joey Logano

11.615 — Kurt Busch

12.308 — Kyle Larson

13.769 — Ryan Newman

13.846 — Clint Bowyer

13.923 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

15.846 — Daniel Suarez

16.000 — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

17.692 — Erik Jones

17.769 — Trevor Bayne

18.692 — Austin Dillon

20.154 — Kasey Kahne

20.385 — Jimmie Johnson

20.538 — Paul Menard

22.077 — Ty Dillon

23.923 — Danica Patrick

24.308 — AJ Allmendinger

25.846 — Michael McDowell

27.308 — Landon Cassill

28.308 — Matt DiBenedetto

28.923 — Chris Buescher

* Aric Almirola, who is out after his injury from a May 13 crash at Kansas Speedway, has an average starting spot of 22.363.

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NASCAR America — which winless driver will break through next?

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Winless drivers have been a big topic of discussion of late. Many notable drivers, including past champions like 2014 champ Kevin Harvick and 2015 champ Kyle Busch, are struggling to reach victory lane in 2017.

And then there’s others who are either winless this season or thus far in their career, like Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Daniel Suarez, Paul Menard, Danica Patrick, A.J. Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne, Erik Jones and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others.

With 13 races down so far, which winless driver will break through as we begin the second half of the regular season? On Tuesday’s NASCAR America, our experts give their take.