October 27, 2012 in Sports

Johnson captures pole at Martinsville

Associated Press
 

Johnson
(Full-size photo)

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 NASCAR Cup Series 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.”

Johnson said he will be cautious of Keselowski. He started 22nd at the track in the spring and nearly won, so he knows it can be done.

Brian Vickers earned the outside starting spot on the front row. Dale Earnhardt Jr., returning after missing two races while recovering from concussions, qualified 20th.

In the pits

Mark Martin, Brian Vickers and Michael Waltrip will team up again in 2013. Michael Waltrip Racing says Martin will compete in 24 races next season in MWR’s No. 55 Toyota. Vickers will drive in nine and team co-owner Waltrip will drive the remaining three.

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