INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — David Ragan, in the midst of a career breakthrough, added the pole for the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to his suddenly improved resume.
Ragan earned his first career Sprint Cup Series victory earlier this month at Daytona, a track long considered to be the crown jewel track of NASCAR. Indianapolis ranks among the most prestigious tracks in the world, and Ragan's pole-winning run Saturday was no small feat.
He made his run late in the session, with three-time Brickyard winner Jimmie Johnson holding down the top spot on the leaderboard. Ragan turned a lap of 182.994 mph in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford to bump Johnson from the pole.
"It will be cool to lead the pack," Ragan said. "It's an honor to be here and to be the fastest guy at Indy. This is a great track. Any type of accomplishment you get here is cool."
It's Ragan's second career pole. His first came in April at Texas.
"It was a good lap, I didn't make a mistake," Ragan said. "It wasn't as aggressive as I wanted to be. But I knew if I hit my marks, had a conservative lap, I'd at least have a top-five."
Kasey Kahne made his qualifying run after Ragan and jumped in front of Johnson with a lap at 182.927 mph in a Toyota from Red Bull Racing.
"We just have to be there at the end," Kahne said. "It seems that's how this race is won, being up front at the end. You're not just going to pass five, six cars. When you get to turn one, you've got to be one of those top couple of cars more times than not."
Johnson, the five-time defending series champion, fell to third. His lap of 182.801 mph in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had led the qualifying session until the late runs by Ragan and Kahne. He wasn't upset though, and knows his past success at Indy will come into play on Sunday.
"This track is clearly unique and we don't race on anything else like it," Johnson said. "When you get it right, you have an advantage."
Penske Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski qualified fourth and fifth in their Dodges for Sunday's race, and the drivers have already heard from team owner Roger Penske on what they'll need to do to win.
"He made a phone call last night and reminded us that we needed to try two tires in practice," Keselowski said. "He's got this whole game plan and how the strategy is going to play out. He definitely studies this race. He loves coming here."
AJ Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and series points leader Carl Edwards rounded out the top 10.
David Stremme, Travis Kvapil, Erik Darnell, JJ Yeley and Scott Wimmer were the five drivers who failed to qualify for the race.
Denny Hamlin qualified 14th, but he'll have to drop to the back of the field at the start of the race as a penalty for changing his engine. The move was necessary because the engine in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota blew up late in Friday's final practice.
It's at least the 11th engine failure by a JGR car this season, and comes as speculation mounts that the team will close its engine shop and lease engines next season from manufacturer Toyota.
Dropping to the back of the field probably won't work to Hamlin's advantage, either. Only four of the previous 17 Brickyard winners started worse than 15th, and the farthest back a winning driver has started was Jeff Gordon at 27th in 2001.
"It's just going to be a tough task coming from the back," Hamlin said. "Everybody runs the same speed, so it's fairly impossible to pass. You can have a 20th-place car, and transplant that guy to coming out of pit road first and go win the race. It's just one of the deals where we know we're going to fight track position."
It may not be much easier at the front for Ragan: The pole-winner has only gone on to win Indianapolis twice before, Kevin Harvick in 2003 and Johnson in 2008.
"I think you've got to be fast to sit on the pole, and to win the race, you've got to be fast 400 miles worth," Ragan said. "You've got to be good throughout the afternoon when it's hot and slick and rubber builds up and you have to make changes. There's a lot that goes into a race than just being fast ... but leading the first lap is certainly a start.
"I'm not saying we're the No. 1 contender, but if we go out and win, I certainly wouldn't be surprised."
It would be a huge victory for Ragan, who suddenly finds himself in contention for a spot in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He's currently 13th in the standings, but the final two spots in the Chase field will go to the drivers ranked highest in points who also have a win.
Ragan has that with the Daytona victory, and three drivers ranked ahead of him are currently winless.
Ragan likes his current position, but is hesitant to get too excited because he's sandwiched between Clint Bowyer in 12th place and teammate Greg Biffle in 14th.
"I think about that and I want to get happy, but then I look to my left, I see Bowyer. I look to my right and I see Greg Biffle, (Juan Pablo) Montoya. That puts me down to reality pretty quick. A lot of good race car drivers around me and my team — we can't get confident that we're just going to get in because we've got a win.
"We can make the Chase, no doubt about it. We're prepared for the fight and can't wait."