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McDowell wins third pole of NASCAR Cup season, his first since announcing plans to change teams

FILE - Michael McDowell smiles prior to a NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Watkins Glen, N.Y., Sunday Aug. 20, 2023. McDowell will not return to Front Row Motorsports after this season, he announced Wednesday morning, May 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

MADISON, Ill. (AP) — Michael McDowell ran a lap at 138.598 mph Saturday to take the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

It’s the third pole for McDowell’s No. 34 Ford in 15 races this year, but the first since he announced he will leave Front Row Motorsports at the end of the season and join Spire Motorsports.

“I am as motivated as I’ve ever been to make sure that we win and make the playoffs, and for so many reasons, right? But more than ever, because I am making a change and I want to finish what we started,” said McDowell, who has spent the past seven seasons with Front Row.

“I want to do what I know we can do. And we have a group of people right now that we can win races, and I just have to do my part.”

Austin Cindric qualified second and Ryan Blaney was third as Fords posted the three fastest times ahead of Sunday's race. There were five Toyotas in the top 10, including Christopher Bell in fourth, Tyler Reddick in fifth and Denny Hamlin in sixth.

Kyle Busch, the Enjoy Illinois 300 defending champion, was the fastest Chevrolet, in 10th place.

A week after having his attempt at running in both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 thwarted by weather, Kyle Larson will start 13th in Sunday’s race.

“We qualified way better than we typically do here,” said Larson, who started 22nd in the inaugural race in 2022 and 15th last year. “Which is still average.”

McDowell credited the pole win to a decision to downshift into third gear in turns 3 and 4, a strategy his team developed after researching last year’s race.

“When it comes to qualifying, you just have to execute your plan. And I planned all week to do that, and I’m just going to execute my plan: right, wrong or indifferent,” McDowell said. “And so I just committed to it. And fortunately, we’re on the right side of it.”

McDowell acknowledged some disappointment that Front Row owner Bob Jenkins had decided to go in a different direction, but he said he understands it may be the right move for the growing team. As Stewart-Haas Racing this week revealed its plans to fold its four-car operation, Front Row announced it acquired an additional charter to add a third car to its garage.

McDowell credited Jenkins for turning him from “a guy that was running 30th every weekend” to winning the 2021 Daytona 500 and the race at Indianapolis last year. McDowell sits 23rd in the points standings, needing to climb above 16th place or to win a race to make the playoffs.

“This is a great start of the weekend for us, and we’ve just got to maximize the opportunity,” McDowell said. “We’ve got to capitalize and we have to execute, and we need a win desperately to get into the playoffs, and we know that."

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AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing