Aiming to build momentum heading into NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie Johnson got off to a good start Friday, winning the pole at Auto Club Speedway.
The two-time reigning Cup champion was easily the fastest driver on the 2-mile oval in qualifying for Sunday's Pepsi 500, turning a fast lap of 180.397 mph. (Complete lineup, Page 13).
"I'm really very proud of that lap," said Johnson, the defending race winner.
For much of the session, it appeared that the front row would be all Hendrick Motorsports, with Jeff Gordon sitting in the second spot with a lap of 179.565. But A.J. Allmendinger, one of nine drivers who had to qualify on speed, elbowed his way between the teammates with a lap of 179.659.
Kasey Kahne was fourth at 179.158, followed by Gillett Evernham Motorsports teammates Patrick Carpentier (178.860) and Elliott Sadler (178.492). Rounding out the top 10 were Martin Truex Jr. (178.434), Dave Blaney (178.381), Kurt Busch (178.165) and Tampa rookie Aric Almirola (178.134).
For Johnson, it was his first pole at the Southern California track, but the series-leading fourth of the season and the 17th of his career.
Heading into the penultimate race of the "regular season," Johnson is fourth in the season points. But, based on his two victories this year, he would be the third seed in the Chase, trailing only eight-time winner Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, a six-time winner this season.
Busch and Edwards have been the story lately, with Edwards winning three of the last four races and Busch turning in a win and a pair of runner-up finishes during the same span.
Johnson knows he has a lot of work to do if he is going to beat those two drivers once the Chase gets going. And a win here on Sunday would be a great way to gain momentum.
"Yeah, it would mean a lot for us to win on a big track like this," Johnson said before his qualifying run. "Mile-and-a-half and above tracks and downforce tracks have been kind of our weak spot. We've been making a lot of gains. Hopefully, we made some gains that will help us this weekend and moving into the Chase."
Johnson said it was the victory here last year that gave him a big boost toward his second title.
"It just started the confidence in our minds that we're ready for the Chase," he said. "The top five guys in the points have a very good point of view or mind-set they're going to be in the Chase. So you're looking at what you need to do to be as good as you can in the Chase, and building the confidence around yourself and the team that you can be a contender. Our past history shows that we can do it. But, winning here last year just kind of cemented those confident thoughts in place."
Edwards and Busch were both fast in practice, but it didn't show in qualifying. Busch will start the race 11th, while Edwards will start a disappointing 26th.