Jimmie Johnson knew he had a fast car the minute he pulled it onto the track at Martinsville Speedway.
The seven-time winner on NASCAR’s shortest, trickiest track backed it up in qualifying with a track record.
Johnson made his fastest lap around the 0.526-mile oval at 98.400 mph Friday, leading a parade of six drivers who broke Tony Stewart’s track record speed of 98.083 mph. It is Johnson’s 30th career pole, and third in 23 starts at Martinsville.
“That’s the icing on the cake,” Johnson said when told of the record. “That makes the day even better yet. Track records are hard to come by, so I’m very proud of that and happy to have that.”
Five other drivers also eclipsed Stewart’s mark on a cooling, later afternoon surface, led by Marcos Ambrose at 98.364.
Ambrose arrived 23rd in points after five races, and hopes the strong showing turns into momentum.
“Yeah, it can turn us around, no doubt,” Ambrose said. “We proved today that if we get our stuff right we can do it.
“We’ve just got to get some momentum and get some confidence back. Our little team is a tough team, but we’ve been knocked around pretty good. It’s like we’ve gone nine rounds with Mike Tyson, but we’re coming back strong here.”
He was followed by Brian Vickers, Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon.
The race is one of nine Vickers will run for Michael Waltrip Racing in a job share with Mark Martin and Waltrip.
“It was two spots not good enough, but it was good,” Vickers said.
Stewart, whose team has struggled through the first five races of the season, qualified 26th and Danica Patrick, a rookie driving one of his cars, qualified 32nd in her first career appearance at the shortest track run in NASCAR’s premier series.
Points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 17th.
Earnhardt is the nephew of team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the son of Kerry.
He has competed in 14 career Nationwide Series races and is the second fourth-generation driver to compete in NASCAR’s top touring series, joining the late Adam Petty.
Castroneves ran a 1:08.5540 around the 17-turn, 2.38-mile permanent road course on Friday in his Penske Chevrolet.
Alex Tagliani was second fastest, followed by rookie Tristan Vautier.
AJ Allmendinger, who will make his IndyCar debut in Sunday’s race, was eighth.