FONTANA, Calif. - One year ago Jimmie Johnson roared into the championship chase on the heels of a pair of victories at California and Richmond - a run that helped propel Johnson to his second consecutive Sprint Cup Series championship.
The California native is poised for a repeat performance after easily winning the pole Friday for Sunday's Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway.
So far this season, Hendrick Motorsports - and Johnson in particular - has struggled at times on NASCAR's bigger speedways. Johnson hopes that Friday's pole kicks off a weekend that will show how many gains his No. 48 team has made.
"Last year (the win) just started the confidence in our minds that we're ready for the Chase. So, you're looking at what you need to do to be as good as you can in the Chase and building the confidence around yourself and the team that you can be a contender."
Johnson, fourth in the series standings with two wins this season, is brimming with confidence so far this week at his home track.
"It would mean a lot for us to win on a big track like this," he said. "Mile-and-a-half and above tracks and downforce tracks have been kind of our weak spot. Hopefully, we made some gains that will help us this weekend and moving into the Chase."
Red Bull Racing's second-year driver A.J. Allmendinger used his dead-last position in the qualifying draw to his advantage, capturing the starting position alongside Johnson.
Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, was third, Kasey Kahne was fourth and rookie Patrick Carpentier completed the top five.
The two drivers currently leading the series standings who are also first and second in wins - Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards - turned in sub-par qualifying results. Busch will line up 15th, while Edwards - winner of last weekend’s race at Bristol, Tenn. - starts 26th.
Edwards, who has won the past two races and three out of the past four, hopes for continued success this weekend.
"It's very cool to have our team running so well, to be on top of our game, and it's really fun to have somebody like Kyle that's so fast," he said. "There's been a couple of races where it's like either me or him, and I think that brings out the best in a lot of people.
"If it comes down to just him and I for the championship, that would be fine, but I have a feeling some of these other guys are going to have something to say about that."
Tony Raines, driving the No. 70 this week, was the only driver who didn't make the field for Sunday's race.