Jimmie Johnson may not be in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but that doesn’t mean he is sitting quietly on the sidelines. Nearly a week after a stunning move to win at Texas, Johnson snagged his first pole of the season Friday with a record setting lap and will lead the field to the green for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
The six-time champion put down a lap of 143.158 breaking the track record of 142.113 mph set last year by Denny Hamlin, with less than two minutes to go in the final five minutes of the three rounds of knockout qualifying.
“We didn’t have the summer that we wanted, but these guys have been working so hard on the No. 48 team and at Hendrick Motorsports,” Johnson said. “I’m very happy to see the progress and the direction things are going. It’s been a little bit, everywhere. If we keep doing that, we’re going to close this season out just like we want to and be ready for 2016.”
Chase driver Kurt Busch tried to snatch the pole a few laps later but came up short and will start from the front row in second for the sixth time this season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start third, Chase drivers Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top five.
“The way that this weekend is shaping up for us it’s a great start,” Busch said. “The car, the crew and everybody we are all clicking on eight cylinders. We just didn’t quite get the pole, (Jimmie) Johnson put down an awesome lap, so congrats to him. We are outside pole and we will go from there.”
Six of the top 12 starters are Chase eligible drivers. Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski however are not among them. Both drivers barely advanced to the second round but made it no farther. Both drivers need a win to advance to the final round but will start outside the top 10 Sunday; Logano rolls off 14th, Keselowski 18th.
“This hasn’t been a bad race track for us by no means, we just haven’t gotten that win yet,” Logano said. “We’ve been fast at every type of race track this year, so I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as far as that goes. That makes us feel confident anywhere we go is when we’ve won at races at tracks we haven’t won at before this year. I feel ready to go. I know my team is ready to go. We’ll work on this thing a little bit more tomorrow, get it good in race trim and go for it then.”
Kyle Larson will start sixth, Eric Jones subbing for the suspended Matt Kenseth starts seventh, Chase driver Kevin Harvick eighth. Kasey Kahne will start ninth, Chase competitor Kyle Busch tenth. Jeff Gordon in his final Phoenix race and already in the final four at Homestead will start 11th, followed by Jamie McMurray in 12th.
“I’m pretty optimistic,” Gordon said. “We had a good race run in practice and we struggled in qualifying trim, but we made it better. That last run wasn’t our best, just got too tight there. So, we will start 11th, but still definitely an improvement from practice.”
With only 43 entries, all who entered will start on Sunday. The full lineup can be found here. Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup cutoff race will get the green flag just after 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday with live coverage on NBC. With four wins at the one-mile track, Johnson will again be looking to deny a Chase drivers hopes for a win and has the best chance to do just that with the 34th pole of his career.
“There’s nothing better,” Johnson said. “If you can’t be in it, you may as well go out there and spoil it.”