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Regan Smith Qualifies 9th At Pocono

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Regan Smith, driver of the Furniture Row Companies Chevrolet, signs autographs during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 11, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Regan Smith, driver of the Furniture Row Companies Chevrolet, signs autographs during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on June 11, 2011 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Kurt Busch’s reward for slapping the wall at practice was a backup No. 22 Dodge that was better than his regular ride.

For that, Busch had plenty of people to thank, starting with his team at Penske Racing.

“Just an honest thank you to my guys,” Busch said.

It’s been quite a reversal for Busch a month after he launched into a foul-mouthed tirade against his race team at Richmond. He made it it two straight poles on Saturday, turning a fast lap of 171.579 mph at Pocono Raceway.

Busch damaged his No. 22 Dodge in Friday’s practice and was forced to a backup car. He also spun at practice last week — a sort of bad luck-good luck habit. He wound up first last week at Kansas Speedway, then topped Jeff Gordon in one of the final qualifying runs at Pocono.

The two-time winner at the 2 1/2-mile track, Busch became the first pole winner under the new Sprint Cup qualifying rules.

Qualifying was determined based on practice speeds — from slowest to fastest — with those times now coming from the first practice session. The qualifying order also will no longer be separated between teams that are locked into the race and teams that must qualify on speed.

Busch was impressed that Penske could produce a pole-winning backup car.

“That’s something you really wouldn’t hear about back in the day,” he said. “It would be, ‘All right, you’ll have to struggle during the weekend.”‘

Busch, who is sixth in points, finished ninth last week at Kansas for his second straight top-10 finish. After some early struggles caused concern and ill feelings at Penske, the drivers are getting their programs turned around. Busch’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, won the pole two races ago at Charlotte and took the checkered flag last week at Kansas.

Richmond was certainly the boiling point for Busch — and looks like the turning point.

He blamed Penske Racing’s shortcomings on technical director Tom German over a radio frequency available to the public. German has since left the team.

“I took the apple tree and shook it as hard as I could at Richmond,” Busch said. “We saw which apples fell and which ones were still there. It was honestly, ‘Hey, do we want to make the Chase? We’ve got to make some changes. Heading into the direction we were, we were just scraping those top 10s. That’s not going to get it done when you want to win the championship.”‘

Busch often doesn’t react well when his team fails to make the needed adjustments to get his car caught up with the leaders. He totally lost it at Richmond when he ran into Ryan Newman’s spinning race car.

The 2004 champion was in a great mood on Saturday — one of the perks that come with starting first. Paul Menard joined him on the front row. Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Regan Smith rounded out the top five.

The new qualifying rules meant most of NASCAR’s heavy hitters hit the track at the end. Hamlin held the pole, then Gordon, before Busch came along and snagged it for good. Points leader Carl Edwards went last and qualified sixth.

“That is a pole-winning car right there,” Edwards said. “It’s nice to be disappointed about a sixth-place qualifying position. It should be a really good run for us.”

Sam Hornish Jr., a former Penske driver, starts 26th in his first Cup race of the season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. starts 21st a week after a second-place finish at Kansas.

Mike Skinner was the lone driver who failed to qualify.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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