LONG POND, Pa. — Jimmie Johnson needed multiple attempts to make it through pre-qualifying inspection, then set a track record with a lap of 180.654 mph to win the pole Friday at Pocono Raceway.
Kyle Busch? He could only think the five-time Sprint Cup champion and crew were up to no good.
Johnson went 29th instead of his scheduled 24th spot, and the later start under the clouds as the track got faster may have given him an advantage over the cars that went out under the sun. Johnson had inspection issues last month at New Hampshire and used another late start to qualify third until his time was scrapped after the No. 48 failed inspection.
Are Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus just working around the rules? Or can they simply not get the car in tune in time for inspection?
“A lot of these other teams figure out how to play by the rules,” Busch said. “It seems like there’s one that’s sometimes late. Quite often, more than the rest.”
Busch will start second and Carl Edwards third. Ryan Newman, last week’s race winner at the Brickyard, starts fourth. Kurt Busch is fifth.
Johnson is tied with Matt Kenseth with a series-high four wins this season and he leads the points standings as he chases his sixth championship. Johnson is in position to go for the season sweep at Pocono, where he won from the pole in June. Johnson took that pole after the field was set on points because rain washed out qualifying.
Johnson took the top spot this time after a second pass through inspection. NASCAR determined the tow on his Chevrolet was off by one-thousandth of an inch — just enough to make Busch suspicious.
“There’s been some times this year where those guys go through four, five, six times and they’re always late,” Busch said. “Every time they’re late, they’re always fast. Maybe we need to be late.”
Johnson, never one to exchange in a verbal spat, brushed off Busch’s comments.
“It’s only (a few) spots, now. It didn’t make a difference,” he said. “I wish there was some master plan behind it all. They’re welcome to try it. They’re welcome to experience the stress that goes with it. My heart was pounding out of my chest trying to get in the car and beat the clock. I don’t wish that kind of stress on anybody. ... It’s not what I want to go through.”
Maybe not. But it worked at Pocono.
Johnson seemed poised to win the pole last week at Indianapolis until Newman topped him on the last qualifying attempt of the day. This time, he would not be denied as NASCAR saw its 11th track qualifying record set this season by the Gen-6 car.
Joey Logano’s old mark of 179.598 mph was topped by six drivers, including Logano. Johnson also set the track record at Martinsville Speedway this season. He now has 31 poles in 420 career Cup starts.
“Track records are cool,” Johnson said. “It makes all the drivers and teams smile.”
Just not an irked Kyle Busch.
“I wish we went later,” he said. “I think we would have had a better racetrack that was 10 degrees cooler, at least.”
Johnson had the car to beat last week in Indianapolis until Newman spoiled the day with a surprise win. Johnson’s crew botched the final pit stop that allowed Newman to pull away.
“It absolutely stung. It wasn’t fun for any of us,” Johnson said. “But the best thing we could do is get back to our jobs and, fortunately or unfortunately, forget about Indy and move on. The faster we move on from that the better we are going to do here.”
Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola complete the top 10. Reigning series champion Brad Keselowski is 11th. Keselowski is winless this season, stuck in 13th in the standings and in danger of not making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Dillon seeks 1st win of the season at Iowa
NEWTON, Iowa — Austin Dillon knows the Nationwide race in Iowa on Saturday night might be his best shot yet at a victory.
But it’s not necessarily because Dillon is running so well.
It’s mostly because Kyle Busch is staying at Pocono Raceway.
Dillon, who took over the Nationwide points lead last week despite going winless through 19 starts, headlines a field almost exclusively made up of Nationwide regulars. Brad Keselowski, who won the inaugural Nationwide race in Iowa four years ago, will be the lone Sprint Cup driver in the field as NASCAR’s top series runs Sunday in Pennsylvania.
Busch, who has won eight Nationwide races in 15 tries in 2013, won’t attempt the Pocono-Iowa double-dip like he’s done in the past — much to Dillon’s relief.
“It’s kind of hard to win one when he’s winning every one of them,” Dillon said. “This is a great weekend, for sure, to come out with (Busch) not being here and with less Cup drivers, to take advantage of that. Getting the first one, to be honest, would be huge and propel us through the rest of the season.”
Dillon entered the weekend atop the Nationwide points standings for the first time in his young career, with a six-point lead over Regan Smith and 13 points ahead of Elliott Sadler.
It’s also the latest the No. 3 car has been in first place since 1999, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his second straight series title.
But despite six poles and 12 top 10s in just 19 starts, Dillon has yet to earn a victory. Few of those close calls stung as much as Dillon’s last trip to Iowa two months ago.
Dillon’s car was often so dominant that it rendered much of the race a bore. But his car also had a tendency to lose speed on long runs, and Trevor Bayne blew past him and cruised to victory under green.
“Having a night race, it’s going to be a little bit easier on our tires,” Dillon said. “Maybe (we’ll) take it a little easier earlier in a run if we’re leading, and just try and conserve what we have in the car.”
Keselowski will likely be the driver to beat this weekend. The reigning Sprint Cup champion has a pair of wins in just eight Nationwide starts, and he’s never finished worse than fourth in three career starts in Iowa.
But there might not be a NASCAR team more dominant at a single track than Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 car is at Iowa. The car has won four of its last five starts on the short oval, all under the eye of crew chief Mike Kelley.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won three times in a row in 2011-12 before departing for the Sprint Cup series, and Bayne followed with a win in June. Bayne, who is currently in ninth place, knows he’ll likely have to contend with Dillon again on Saturday night.
“You always have to get better. I feel like the No. 3 car was faster than us on short runs last time, and they know that we were faster on the long runs,” Bayne said. “They’re going to bring back something that they can work on for longer runs, so we’ve got to get better on our short runs.”