MARTINSVILLE, Va.—So what else is new?
Jimmie Johnson, who won last fall’s race at Martinsville Speedway from the top starting spot, continued his mastery of the paper-clip-shaped track during Friday afternoon’s time trials.
In the first competitive appearance of NASCAR’s Gen-6 race car at Martinsville, Johnson blistered the vaunted short track in 19.244 seconds (98.400 mph) in winning the pole for Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500, as the top six drivers in the field topped the former track record of 98.084 mph established by Tony Stewart in October 2005.
In winning his third Coors Light pole award at Martinsville and the 30th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole of his career, Johnson edged Marcos Ambrose by .007 seconds. Brian Vickers qualified third, followed by Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon. Kahne and Gordon, Johnson’s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, ran identical speeds (98.185 mph), with Kahne getting the fifth starting spot based on his car’s higher standing in owner points.
In his first practice run earlier in the day, Johnson knew his No. 48 Chevrolet SS was fast.
“In the first run out, we were in (qualifying) trim and made two or three laps, and I knew right away that we had a great shot at it today,” said Johnson, a seven-time winner at Martinsville. “At that point, I just needed to do my job and not mess up.
“So I’m very proud of that. It’s very easy to (mess up) at this race track, especially once practice ends. You sit and have lunch and relax for a couple hours and have to do it all over again. A great day across the board — team, driver, engine, car, everything that’s new. We were able to step up and figure it out and get the car dialed in.”
Early in Friday’s session, the track record fell. Logano, the third driver to make a qualifying run, toured the .526-mile short track in 19.269 seconds (98.272 mph), breaking the record set by Stewart, one of his Fontana antagonists from two weeks ago.
Six cars later, Ambrose (98.384 mph) knocked Logano off the provisional pole, and Vickers followed with a lap at 98.287 mph to push Logano back to third after 14 of 44 cars had taken time trials. Johnson’s pole run late in the session bumped Logano to fourth.
The No. 2 Ford of defending series champion Brad Keselowski was late getting through inspection and made it to the grid with seconds left on the five-minute clock. Keselowski nevertheless qualified seventh at 98.078 mph.
Notes: Danica Patrick will start 32nd for her first race at Martinsville and the first for a female driver in NASCAR’s top division at the venerable short track. … Subbing for injured Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin qualified 35th in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. … Mike Bliss failed to make the 43-car field.