Jimmie Johnson may not have won a race yet this season, but he is back in a position where he has traditionally found much success – leading the field of a Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Johnson got better through each of the three rounds of knockout qualifying Thursday night before capturing the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 with an average lap speed of 194.911 mph in the final round.
Johnson was 13th fastest in Round 1 and fifth fastest in Round 2. Two drivers – Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth – who advanced to the final round failed to start a lap before the five-minute clock expired and will start 11th and 12th, respectively.
Johnson has six career wins at Charlotte with the most recent coming in fall 2009. He is the most recent driver to win from the pole in the 600, doing so in 2004.
“We don’t care what anyone else has to say about this race team; we know what we’re capable of,” Johnson said. “We knew we had a great race car today. We executed and did out jobs.”
Johnson has said repeatedly during his career, qualifying has never been his strong suit.
“Qualifying days aren’t usually our best,” he said. “When we qualify well, we know we’re going to race well, so I am really optimistic.”
The pole is the first for Johnson this season and his first under the new knockout system. Johnson’s 33 career poles tie him 20th all-time with Fonty Flock.
Brad Keselowski qualified second, Kasey Kahne was third, Danica Patrick was fourth and Clint Bowyer was fifth.
Series points leader Jeff Gordon will line up 27th and failed to advance out of the first round.
“It just disappoints us. We know our car is much better than this,” said Gordon, who celebrates the 20th anniversary of his first Cup victory on Sunday.
“I think these are about as challenging conditions as you can have when you have a really hot day like this. The sun goes down and it’s a total guessing game and we completely guessed wrong.
“I’m not concerned about the race. I know that we can work our way through there and be really strong in the race.”
Patrick’s fourth-place starting position marks the first time she has qualified in the Top-10 for consecutive points races. She started ninth and finished a career-best seventh at Kansas two weeks ago.
She was sixth-fastest in Round 1 and fastest in Round 2 before setting in for fourth in Round 3. Yet her lap at 193.334 mph was still the fastest qualifying lap by a female NASCAR driver and her best starting position at a non-restrictor-plate track.
“We have a lot to be proud of. I mean let’s face it, this is the part of the weekend that I dreaded every time,” Patrick said. “I had to train myself to not say ‘I hate qualifying.’
“A lot to be proud of at Stewart-Haas. It’s going to give us a great starting spot for Sunday.”
Dave Blaney and J.J. Yeley were the only drivers who failed to make the 43-car field.