HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Matt Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team took a huge step away from their bad performance last week by winning the pole Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship-deciding race.
Kenseth turned a lap at 177.667 mph in his Toyota to claim the top starting spot for Sunday’s race. He called it “a confidence booster” after his 23rd-place finish at Phoenix essentially ruined his title chances.
He was trailing Jimmie Johnson by seven points going into Phoenix and left the race down 28 with just one race to decide the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. But the pole, his third of the season and 11th of his career, is a start toward a big rebound.
“I think more than morale, it’s probably a confidence booster,” Kenseth said. “The thing is, Jimmie is so far ahead, that even if he does have a problem we need to be in the front to be able to capitalize on that. This is a good start to that, hopefully get a bonus point right away, get the best pit stall. I think it’s important, we need to be up front and try to lead as much as we can and be in the mix at the end.”
Whether it’s enough remains to be seen. Johnson, who needs only to finish 23rd or better Sunday to win his sixth championship, qualified seventh.
He feels good about his situation.
“It’s a great position to be in, there’s no doubt about it,” Johnson said. “It’s nice, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. I have to run all 400 miles on Sunday and that’s really the goal for this Lowe’s car.”
Kevin Harvick is the only other driver mathematically eligible to win the title and goes into the race 34 points behind Johnson. He qualified one spot ahead of Johnson in sixth after internalizing too long about how to make his qualifying run.
“I argued with myself for an hour or two there, before that qualifying session, as to where I was going to run,” Harvick said. “I thought I needed to run the bottom in (turns) three and four. All-in-all it was a good lap.”
Kurt Busch qualified second to earn his ninth front row starting position of the season and Joey Logano was third.
Brad Keselowski will start fourth in his final race as defending Sprint Cup champion and was followed by Denny Hamlin.
Martin Truex Jr. will start eighth in his final race with Michael Waltrip Racing, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Elliott Sadler rounded out the top 10.
Blazers 109, Celtics 96
BOSTON — LaMarcus Aldridge scored 27 points and added 12 rebounds to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 109-96 victory over the Celtics on Friday night, their first victory in Boston since 2004.
Mo Williams scored 18 with eight assists for Portland, which earned its fifth consecutive victory.
Jared Sullinger, who missed the last game with a bruised knee, had 26 points and eight rebounds off the bench for Boston, which has lost two in a row.
It was Aldridge’s fourth straight game with a double-double. Nicolas Batum added 18 points and Damian Lillard had 17 for the Trail Blazers. Robin Lopez had 10 rebounds.
Portland led 94-80 early in the fourth quarter before Sullinger and Courtney Lee hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the deficit to eight points. Sullinger responded to Williams’ basket with another 3-pointer to make it a seven-point game with 8:51 to play.
The Celtics had two possessions to make it closer but came away without a point. Thomas Robinson rolled one in off the rim on a feed from Williams to make it 98-89, Dorell Wright hit a 3-pointer to make it a 12-point game and Williams hit a short fallaway jumper to make it 103-89.
Boston had won 13 of the previous 15 meetings against Portland since 2004 — a streak that includes the New Big Three era of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen but also the period before that, when the Celtics dropped into the lottery. Boston has allowed 105 or more points in three of its last four games, winning two.
The Celtics opened an eight-point lead early in the second quarter but soon gave up 12-4 and 10-2 runs to fall behind 57-51 at the half.
Wesley Matthews had 13 points and Aldridge scored 10 with six rebounds in the first. Sullinger had 10 points off the bench for Boston at the break.
NOTES: The Celtics lost four games, won four, and now have lost two in a row to continue their streaky ways. ... Sullinger, a 2012 first-round draft pick who missed most of last season with back surgery, missed just one game with a bone bruise on his knee. ... Robin Lopez had a double-double in the previous three games, but had just three points and 10 rebounds on Friday.
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