MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson made his move at Martinsville.
With a lap at 97.598 mph in Friday afternoon’s time trials at the .526-mile short track, Johnson won the pole for Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500, the seventh race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Johnson will start 31 positions ahead of Chase leader Brad Keselowski, who qualified 32nd at 96.015 mph. In winning his third Coors light pole award at Martinsville, Johnson edged Brian Vickers (97.533 mph) by .013 seconds for the top starting spot.
Kyle Busch (97.427 mph) qualified third, followed by Jeff Burton (97.392 mph) and Denny Hamlin (97.382 mph). Chase drivers Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer secured the sixth through eighth positions, respectively.
Johnson, a six-time winner at Martinsville, entered the weekend second in the standings, seven points behind Keselowski. Hamlin is 20 behind with four races left in the Chase. The last time Johnson started from the pole at Martinsville, on Oct. 19, 2008, he won the race.
Johnson qualified 22nd for the spring race at Martinsville and was determined to remedy that mediocre performance.
“After qualifying as poorly as I did in the spring, I focused on these two laps pretty heavily and wanted to make sure I did my job,” Johnson said. “…We just hit it today, from the car standpoint, from my standpoint of driving the race track. We got it right today.”
Keselowski has qualified 22nd, 20th and 25th for the last three Chase races but consistently has been able to work his way to the front. That might be difficult to do at Martinsville, where close-quarters racing is the norm and passing is difficult.
“The tough position there is, once we get single-file and we’re about 10 laps into the show, the leaders are (caught up) to the 43rd-place car,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to go, and everybody around you has that same mentality, too, so it can be pretty cutthroat back there.”
Keselowski, however, can find consolation in his recent performances and the knowledge that his No. 2 Dodge has been performing substantially better in race setup than in qualifying trim.
“I can tell you, I don’t enjoy qualifying like crap,” Keselowski said. “That’s not what I come to the race track to do. But it’s been the course, as of late, and you take solace in the fact that, in the part that matters, the actual racing, my team has done a great job preparing excellent cars and executing on all levels.
“You try to focus on what you have that’s going right, and that’s what we have that’s going right.”
Mike Bliss and J.J. Yeley failed to make the 43-car field.