NASCAR: Johnson on pole
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. ó Jimmie Johnson will never have a better view at Watkins Glen International. He just hopes he can keep it.
Johnson captured the first road-course pole of his career in qualifying Friday, turning a lap at 123.633 mph in 71.34 seconds over the 11-turn, 2.45-mile circuit to edge Kurt Busch for the top spot for Sunday.
“It’s going to be nice to have a good view from the front,” said the three-time defending Cup champion, who has never won a Cup road race. “It’s going to boil down to track position and the pit stops, so hopefully we can stay up there.”
Busch, who won the pole here three years ago, finished just 0.01 second behind Johnson. Denny Hamlin, fresh from an emotional victory at Pocono on Monday, qualified third. Marcos Ambrose of Tasmania was fourth, followed by David Stremme. Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Boris Said, and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top 10.
Points leader Tony Stewart qualified 13th, while four-time Glen winner Jeff Gordon will go off 31st, one spot ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s the worst qualifying effort of Gordon’s career at The Glen.
Because of four rainouts in qualifying in the past five years, this was the first time the COT was used in qualifying at Watkins Glen. Johnson secured the top spot in spite of a few mistakes.
“I blistered the right front in practice, it was ready to pop, and I locked the brakes in the (tight four-turn) Bus Stop,” said Johnson, who started from the pole at The Glen in 2004 when qualifying was rained out. He finished 40th after blowing the engine in the No. 48 Chevy on lap 23. “I let off and bounced off the curbs and I knew I could charge hard back. It worked out.”
In the past five Cup races at Watkins Glen, there have been 34 cautions, several in the closing laps. And with NASCAR’s double-file restart in effect here for the first time, a rough race seemed to be looming.
“There’s going to be a lot of pushing and shoving,” Johnson said. “It’s hard racing. It’s what the fans have been asking for.”
Monday’s rain-delayed race at Pocono featured an unusual amount of contact for a 2.5-mile layout, where cars can comfortably run four wide down the long straightaways of the three-curve track. Kurt Busch expects that bump-and-grind trend to continue at The Glen and hopes he fares better than he did at Pocono, where he built a 5-second lead, watched it get erased by a late caution, and finished ninth.
“As we’re getting more comfortable, it seems as if there’s more risks taken on double-file restarts towards the end of these races,” Busch said. “It’s become a bit disturbing watching these restarts. It just seems like it’s every man for himself. You’re digging for a top 10, you’re going to lay a door into somebody because eight tires turn better than four.”
The strategy for Johnson and the rest of those starting at the front will be to stay there and watch the mayhem unfold in the rearview mirror.
“You want to separate yourself from guys and you hope that you’ve got enough fuel to make it to the end on your last pit stop,” Kurt Busch said. “And when you do pit for the last time, you hope that you’re out in that top-five group and don’t have to mess too much with the riffraff. There’s no way I’m going to be able to come up through the pack with the way everybody drives at the end of the race. That’s what makes it disturbing.”
There are five races before the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and only the top 12 drivers in points qualify for the 10-race postseason.
The top five drivers in points ó Stewart, Johnson, Gordon, Kurt Busch, and Hamlin ó are well ahead of the rest of the competition, but only 102 points separate Kahne in seventh from Biffle in 12th. Kyle Busch is next, 101 points behind Kahne but only 20 points ahead of David Reutimann in 16th.
“We’re running as hard as we can,” Biffle said. “But we’re trying to stay the course, not break anything or get involved in a wreck.”
The pressure is clearly mounting, especially in light of the recession with sponsors looking elsewhere. Dewalt recently dropped Matt Kenseth after a decade and Lowe’s announced this week that it will not renew its naming rights of Lowe’s Motor Speedway when its contract expires after this season.
“As the economy has gone into the mode that it’s in, there are fewer sponsors willing to spend that kind of money,” Gordon said. “I think it is that much more important to be in the top 12, but I really think that the focus from the driver’s standpoint is purely competition. This is your goal to be in the Chase. That’s every competitor’s goal.”