Continuing to act as the playoff spoiler, Jimmie Johnson captured the No. 1 starting position Friday at Phoenix International Raceway for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 500.
After a first-round elimination in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Johnson denied championship-eligible Brad Keselowski a much-needed win a week ago at Texas Motor Speedway. Friday, he stymied Kurt Busch, another playoff driver needing a victory, to take his first pole of the season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified third, followed by Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr.
“There’s nothing better — if you can’t be in it, you may as well go out there and spoil it,” Johnson said.
Although owning five wins, Johnson uncharacteristically struggled this season. He went 12 races without leading a single lap and before Texas, his last victory came late May at Dover International Speedway — a span of almost six months. That lack of success impacted the relationship between the six-time series champion and crew chief Chad Knaus.
“We were as frustrated as we have ever been,” Johnson said. “In those moments it’s tough to lead on his side for his engineers. It’s tough for me to lead the team in the adjustments that I need.
“As the Chase grew closer we kind of recognized it, started making changes, saw improvements and now with the pressure off from the championship stand point we’ve been running with it further and further and our cars kept getting faster.”
Phoenix is the penultimate race of the season and the Round 3 elimination event that will determine the four-driver field for next week’s championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Only Jeff Gordon, who qualified 11th Friday, has clinched a spot by virtue of winning two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway.
Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Truex provisionally hold the three remaining transfer positions based on points. A victory automatically advances a driver to the next round. Harvick, who’s won four consecutive Phoenix races, qualified eighth, with Busch 10th.
If (Harvick) wins, that puts us in a must-race situation with (Truex) or (Edwards) depending on how that kind of goes in order to be the guy that transfers through,” Busch said. “We’d love to win it, first and foremost.”
The only two Chase drivers not advancing to the final round of the three-round session were Joey Logano and Keselowski, teammates at Team Penske, who each need a victory Sunday to advance to the championship finale. Logano posted the 14th-fastest time, Keselowski the 18th.
“We just missed it a little bit,” Logano said. “I wish we were in the next round and going for a pole, but the fact of the matter is we’re gonna start 14th and we’re gonna work on our car tomorrow and get it ready to win a race on Sunday.”
All 43 drivers who entered qualified.
Quicken Loans 500 starting lineup