By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Jimmie Johnson played spoiler last Sunday at Texas, stealing a win from Brad Keselowski in the closing laps.
On Friday afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway – though “spoiler” is not a role he relishes – the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion was at it again, winning the pole for Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) with a track-record lap at 143.158 mph (25.147 seconds).
Johnson, who was bounced from the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in the first Challenger Rounnd, edged Chase driver Kurt Busch (142.880 mph) for the top spot on the grid.
The Coors Light Pole Award broke a 58-race drought for Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team, who earned the most recent of his 34 career poles in May 2014 at Charlotte. The pole, his third at Phoenix, the last coming in November 2013 during his run for a sixth series title.
Johnson has four victories at Phoenix, the most recent in 2009.
“I don’t think I want to play spoiler — I just want to go fast,” Johnson said after his record run. “I just want to sit on the pole, win races, lead laps. I want to be the 48 that we know we’re capable of. My motivation comes through that.
“I want to be the race team that we are and the driver that I am. It’s not because I want to be the spoiler, and I’m not in the Chase, so let me get in the way. It has nothing to do with that.”
For Busch, who for practical purposes must win on Sunday to advance to the Chase’s Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the front-row starting spot is a welcome indicator of the speed in his car.
“The way that this weekend is shaping up for us, it’s a great start,” Busch said. “We know we need to win. The car, the crew and everybody we are all clicking on eight cylinders.
“We just didn’t quite get the pole. Johnson put down an awesome lap, so congrats to him. We’re outside pole, and we’ll go from there.”
For Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, who like Busch are dealing with must-win scenarios to advance in the Chase, Friday’s time trials were a major disappointment. Neither driver qualified for the third and final round of knockout qualifying, with Logano earning the 14th starting spot and Keselowski the 18th.
“We just missed it a little bit,” Logano said after the second round. “I wish we were in the next round and going for a pole, but the fact of the matter is we’re going to start 14th, and we’re going to work on our car (during Saturday’s practice) and get it ready to win a race on Sunday.”
Kevin Harvick, who has won the last four races at Phoenix, qualified eighth. Other Chase drivers will start as follows: Carl Edwards, fourth; Martin Truex Jr., fifth; Kyle Busch, 10th; and Jeff Gordon, 12th. Gordon is the only one of the eight eligible drivers who has already clinched a spot in the Championship Round – thanks to his Nov. 1 victory at Martinsville.
Just because of the qualifying effort, however, don’t discount Harvick’s chances for a fifth straight victory at the one-mile track.
“We didn’t qualify as well as we did last time, but the car was really good in race trim as we practiced today,” Harvick said. “We just never really found anything that worked for us in qualifying trim.”
Notes: Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified third… In both the second and third rounds, seven drivers ran faster than the previous track qualifying record of 142.141 mph set by Joey Logano in November 2014.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Qualifying – Quicken Loans Qualifying for Heroes 500
1. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 143.158 mph.
2. (41) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 142.880 mph.
3. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 142.580 mph.
4. (19) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 142.501 mph.
5. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 142.292 mph.
6. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 142.287 mph.
7. (20) Erik Jones(i), Toyota, 142.219 mph.
8. (4) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 142.068 mph.
9. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 142.062 mph.
10. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 141.833 mph.
11. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 141.409 mph.
12. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 141.409 mph.
13. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 141.665 mph.
14. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 141.649 mph.
15. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 141.393 mph.
16. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 141.343 mph.
17. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 141.282 mph.
18. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 141.271 mph.
19. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 140.944 mph.
20. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 140.691 mph.
21. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 140.378 mph.
22. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 140.280 mph.
23. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 140.252 mph.
24. (13) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 139.735 mph.
25. (51) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 139.492 mph.
26. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 139.459 mph.
27. (15) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 139.265 mph.
28. (9) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 139.114 mph.
29. (55) David Ragan, Toyota, 138.910 mph.
30. (83) Matt DiBenedetto #, Toyota, 138.900 mph.
31. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 138.739 mph.
32. (40) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 138.212 mph.
33. (26) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 138.164 mph.
34. (38) David Gilliland, Ford, 137.878 mph.
35. (7) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 137.868 mph.
36. (46) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 137.799 mph.
37. (23) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, Owner Points
38. (35) Cole Whitt, Ford, Owner Points
39. (32) Joey Gase(i), Ford, Owner Points
40. (34) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, Owner Points
41. (98) Ryan Preece, Ford, Owner Points
42. (33) Ryan Ellis(i), Chevrolet, Owner Points
43. (62) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, Owner Points
Image: Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images