JOLIET, Ill. — firstname.lastname@example.org
What kind of message does it send when the driver who has won five of the past six Sprint Cup Series championships begins this year’s Chase starting from the pole?
To Jimmie Johnson’s competitors, probably not a hopeful one.
Johnson used a lap at 182.865 mph to win the pole for Sunday’s GEICO 400, his second pole of the season and 27th of his career.
Since the advent of the Chase for the Cup in 2004, Johnson has won 20 races in the Chase and in six of those he started from the pole.
A victory in Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway would be especially important for two other reasons – it’s the hometown of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, and Chicagoland is one of five tracks in the Cup series on which Johnson does not own a victory.
“It’s too early in the Chase to be over-the-top excited or get all down and out if we didn’t qualify like we wanted to today, but qualifying well makes the race so much easier,” said Johnson, who starts the Chase as the No. 2 seed, three points behind top-seed Denny Hamlin.
“You know your pit stall is going to be right and track position at the start of the race will be in your favor. It’s not a must to win the race or the championship, but it makes life so much easier.
“This is just what we need for Sunday.”
Johnson set a NASCAR record winning five consecutive championships between 2006 and 2010. His streak was ended last season by Tony Stewart, who edged Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker.
Johnson begins this season’s Chase in a much better position than a year ago. He already has three victories (and nine bonus points) where last season he had a single victory (and three bonus points).
Simply finishing ahead of Hamlin in Sunday’s race would go a long way toward moving Johnson into the series points lead.
“I was was certain a Chase driver was going to win the pole. I think that’s how it’s going to be throughout the Chase,” Johnson said.
Most of the rest of the 12 drivers competing for the championship are not far behind Johnson.
Matt Kenseth will start third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth, Kasey Kahne sixth, Hamlin eighth, Clint Bowyer ninth, Brad Keselowski 13th, Martin Truex Jr. 18th, Jeff Gordon 19th, Greg Biffle 22nd, Tony Stewart 29th and Kevin Harvick will line up in 35th.
Kenseth, like Johnson, has not been known as a great qualifier in his career. He, too, was pleased about the start of the Chase.
“I got everything we could get out of it,” said Kenseth, who won the pole for this race a year ago. “I thought it was good strategy by Jimmy (Fennig, crew chief) to try to go fast in the second practice (on Friday), not in the first one, in order to go out earlier (in the order).
“I think qualifying has been better (for us) and it does matter more where you qualify than it did back in the day just because everyone is closer to the same speed and it is much more difficult to pass.”
Earnhardt hopes passing won’t be too difficult.
After turning in a strong qualifying run on Saturday, Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team elected to change engines. He will have to start Sunday’s race from the rear of the field.
“I don’t think we are super concerned. We had a great car in practice and qualified really well so we showed we have good speed,” said Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte.
“Fortunately, this is a race track that there are multiple pit strategies and it’s not a really simple straight forward pit strategy to call. I think there will be a lot of opportunities to use our good pit stops and place on pit road to get back towards the front.”
In other notable performances Saturday, Aric Almirola qualified second and Carl Edwards fifth. Danica Patrick, making her sixth Cup start, will line up 41st.