MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson's championship hopes got a boost Friday when he won the pole position for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, while points leader Brad Keselowski qualified 32nd.
Johnson, a five-time champion, gained not only the top starting spot with his lap at 97.598 miles per hour, but the stall at the front of pit road, giving him unimpeded access to the track.
"Track position is important, and then that pit stall is so important," Johnson said.
He trails Keselowski by seven points with four races remaining. Denny Hamlin, who is third in the points race and 13 behind Johnson, will start fifth.
An additional disadvantage seemed to be the last thing Keselowski needed, primarily because his two closest pursuers in the title chase are the two drivers that have dominated at Martinsville in recent years.
Johnson has won six times on the 0.526-mile, paper clip-shaped oval, and has led 1,788 laps. Hamlin has won four times here, and led 1,127 laps.
Keselowski, making only his sixth start at the track, has led two laps and finished no higher than ninth.
He's confident he can make up for his poor two-lap run when the most important 500 laps are put on the scoreboard, and pointed to last weekend in Kansas, where he qualified 25th and raced his way to finish eighth.
"I'd much rather race towards the front rather than qualify towards the front if I had to pick between the two," he said. "I feel like we'll be capable of pulling that off once the race gets started. Just ready to keep going, you know, feeling the season wind down and really feel good about our opportunities in front of us."
He also said he isn't feeling the pressure that Johnson said is most intense for the leader.
"There's this friend of mine that has this joke that there's two types of pressures: pressure applied and pressure felt. And there might be pressure applied, but I don't feel it, how about that," he said when told of Johnson's theory.
He's also trying to keep from thinking what the next month could mean to him.
"I mean, yeah, you can't help but think about it, but I've thought about it since I was a little kid," he said about potentially winning the championship. "... There's a lot of work to be done and it would be a disservice to the work that we've done to date to let that get in your head and think so much about it that you don't focus on the work still to be done."
That's how Johnson has won five, and he's primed to make the most of his advantage.
"We've helped ourselves out dramatically today by qualifying on the pole. We've got the safest pit stall, and starting with track position is very important," he said. "So, stats show one thing, but you've still got to go run the race and I feel really good about my Lowe's Chevrolet and I think we'll be in strong, championship-form leaving here."
Brian Vickers earned the outside starting spot on the front row, with Kyle Busch third and Jeff Burton in the second row.
Johnson says he will be cautious. He started 22nd at the track in the spring and nearly won, so he knows it can be done.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., returning to the track after missing two races while recovering from concussions, qualified 20th.