First out for final qualifying and first on the scoring chart, Kyle Busch earned his first pole position of the season Saturday with a lap of 162.191 mph in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet around the one-mile Dover (Del.) Motor Speedway.

It’s the 34th career pole position for the two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and he’ll start on the front row for Sunday’s Wurth 400 (2 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) alongside Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, whose fast lap (161.951 mph) in the No. 12 Ford Mustang was a mere .033-second off Busch’s pole speed.

“The last month or so there’s definitely been a struggle with speed,” Busch said. “It’s pretty funny we were standing here talking about sitting on the pole last year too with the rainout and started first. And then my over-excitement of coming down pit road for the first time, speeding on pit road, sent us to the back and didn’t quite have the race we wanted.

“Don’t want to make that same mistake this year. The guys here did a great job. … we’re wanting to trend the right way and putting in the effort, the hours and all the extra work to figure out what’s going on and why. This is our first test. We felt like Dover and [next week’s venue] Kansas would be a really good test of some stuff. And what do ya know? It worked. Let’s go.”

This season’s three-race winner, Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron will start his No. 24 Chevrolet third, alongside last week’s Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway race winner, 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick in the No. 45 Toyota. Noah Gragson in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and former Dover winner, Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will start fifth and sixth.

The Fords of SHR’s Chase Briscoe and last week’s Talladega pole-winner, Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell were next fastest in qualifying, followed by Hendrick Motorsport’s Alex Bowman – the 2021 Dover winner – and Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger.

It was a strong qualifying outing for the Ford Mustang, which is still looking to score its first series victory of 2024. Not only were there four Fords in the top-10, but fellow Ford drivers Austin Cindric, Josh Berry and Joey Logano will line up 11th-13th on the 37-car grid.

Of note, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell – a winner at Phoenix this year – spun on his qualifying lap and will have to start 33rd.  Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, an 11-time Dover winner, is making one of his limited season starts and will start the No. 84 Legacy Motor Club Toyota 27th. Defending race winner, JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. will start 15th.

And 21-year old Corey Heim, who is making his NASCAR Cup Series debut filling in for injured Legacy Motor Club driver Erik Jones, will start the No. 43 Legacy Motor Club Toyota 32nd – a row ahead of the team’s fulltime driver John Hunter Nemechek.

Heim was 14th fastest of the 16 cars in the opening practice but reasonably close on speed to the pack. Several of the veteran NASCAR Cup Series drivers – former champion Kyle Larson and this year’s three-time race winner William Byron, in particular – were very complimentary of Heim, despite the young driver’s challenging circumstances.

“Just so much different, a lot of fun, a lot of grip,” Heim said after his first official practice in the car, adding, “Just trying to find my limits but in these 20-minutes practices, it’s tough.”

Jones spoke to the media at track and said he is feeling better after a hard crash at Talladega last week that left him with a compression fracture in his lower vertebrae. He did not give a timetable for a return.

NOTEBOOK

*Jones, 28, was in the pits Saturday at Dover and will be trackside for Sunday’s Wurth 400, assisting the team as needed while NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series championship contender Heim drives Jones’ No. 43 Toyota.

Jones – a three-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner- conceded the hard racing on the unforgiving one-mile Dover oval did not present the best situation to be back in the car and testing his injury.

“To be honest right now, I’m feeling pretty good,” Jones said. “As a driver, probably any driver, they want to just hop back in. I would love to say that I could get back in and do it right now. Is that possible? I don’t know. I don’t know how I would truly feel in the car, especially a place like Dover.

“I get pretty sore at night and when I’m not moving around. My range of motion is a bit limited right now, but the soreness has faded away. It was pretty bad earlier in the week and I was just resting. By yesterday and today, I’m feeling better and better.”

This is the first race Jones has missed since becoming a fulltime NASCAR Cup Series driver and described it as “a unique perspective for me.”

“It is definitely more challenging I thought, waking up this morning to be honest, and getting ready for today and realizing that you are not getting in the car,” he said.

Team co-owner Johnson would not predict how long Jones may be out of the car, but did confirm Saturday, should Jones be unable to race at Kansas Speedway next week, Heim would indeed be back in the No. 43 for that race too.

Jones received a medical waiver from NASCAR this week that would allow him to still participate in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs should he qualify.

*The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Johnson confirmed this week he will compete in back-to-back events for the first time since he retired from fulltime NASCAR competition in 2020 – Sunday’s race at Dover and then next week at Kansas Speedway. Johnson has a record 11 victories at the concrete Dover mile and is a three-time winner at Kansas.

Yet even with all that success, the 48-year old Johnson concedes he’s still learning this NextGen race car with finishes of 28th (Daytona) and 29th (Texas) in his only other 2024 starts in the No. 84 Toyota. He competed only three times in 2023 with a best finish of 31st coming in the Daytona 500 – a race he’s won twice.

“It’s just so different,” Johnson said of the new car compared to the ones he drove to 83 wins and the record-tying seven titles. “I realized that quickly at Texas. I have a few wins at Texas that didn’t carry in. It is really on me. It is such a different environment as a driver and to spot these drivers in the garage, a two-year head-start on the little nuances that you need from the prep side on a Tuesday, all the way to the completion on a Monday when you debrief and work through it all.

“There is just a lot of distance to make up and first and foremost, I need to do my part and get in tune with this car. Through this stretch, I will be able to do so.”

Johnson last raced at Dover in 2020 with finishes of seventh and third place. His earned the last win of his career there in 2017.

*Bowman credits his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson with being a big help with his Monster Mile education. Bowman, 31, who won at Dover in 2021 and has five top-10 finishes in the last six Dover races, missed this race last year because of injury, but is very optimistic about his chances Sunday in what will be his 300th career series start.

“I think it’s just a place where I enjoy going to,” said Bowman, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. “I feel like I bring a little something to the table and know what I want and know what I need in my race car to be successful here.”

“I attribute a lot of my success here to Jimmie [Johnson] as well,” he said of the 11-time Dover race winner and NASCAR Hall of Famer. “Definitely a special place for the No. 48 car. When you think of think of the dominance that team had kind of throughout that whole era, this is a place that comes top of mind. So, it’s super cool to have also been successful here in the No. 48 car. I think even my own successes here, I definitely attribute to him as well.”

Bowman’s fifth-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway last week made him one of the strongest movers inside the championship standings – vaulting him four positions from 14th place to 10th place.