DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Jamie McMurray couldn't help smiling during his record-setting lap at Darlington Raceway. Turned out, he was one of few to leave the track happy.
McMurray set a Darlington record of 180.370 mph to lead qualifying Friday for the Southern 500. Seven-time Darlington winner Jeff Gordon was a whisker behind at 180.323 and Brian Vickers third in 179.987.
All three bettered the old mark that Matt Kenseth set a year ago.
"I was like grinning in the car because you just don't get to have this kind of lap very often," McMurray said.
It was the fifth career pole and second this season for the Daytona 500 champion. And it came on a day when racers had a hard enough time staying on course at the track "Too Tough To Tame."
Last week's winner at Richmond, Kyle Busch, scraped the wall on his qualifying run, drawing cheers from those in the stands in front of the start-finish line. Busch will start 39th on Saturday night.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wrecked on his second lap of practice and moved to a back up car. He was so spooked by the track, Earnhardt Jr. predicted he'd show up here one year, have another bad run and give up the sport.
That's an attitude "Little E" didn't inherit from his late father -- Dale Earnhardt is second on Darlington's career list with nine victories. Earnhardt finished 19th fastest.
Roush Fenway Racing star Carl Edwards could not get in on time and used his top 35 position in owners points to make the field. Edwards will start 41st.
Speeds increased again in the Sprint Cup series third visit since a multimillion dollar repaving project smoothed out the rough edges of the six-decade-old, egg-shaped superspeedway.
Where the choppy surface in the past might give racers time to correct and yield a gentle "Darlington stripe," now drivers edge harder into the wall and lead to bigger problems.
"It makes it pretty hairy," said Gordon, who shares the track record of five Southern 500s with Cale Yarborough.
McMurray has had his struggles with Darlington since his first Sprint Cup visit in 2003. He had qualified inside the top 10 just once in nine previous races and has only finished in the top 15 once in his last four events.
McMurray credited his No. 26 Chevrolet for the success.
"When you come somewhere like here, when your car doesn't stick, you hit the wall," he said. "You just hope it sticks. And if it does, you run a good lap."