What to watch for at the Sprint Cup race in Phoenix
USA Today Sports’ Jeff Gluck breaks down the Quicken Loans Race For Heroes 500.
USA TODAY Sports
Jimmie Johnson – remember him? – does not go away quietly.
Johnson, who was knocked out of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in the first round, took pole position in the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 on Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Johnson, a six-time series champion who also won last week at Texas Motor Speedway to spoil Chase driver Brad Keselowski’s dominant run, knocked down pace leader Kurt Busch late in the final qualifying session , snatching the top spot from Lowe’s Patriotic No. 48 Chevrolet with a record lap measured at 143.158 mph. The round pushed Busch (142.880) to an outside starting spot in the front row.
“It’s really nice to have the swagger we used to have again,” said Johnson, who earned his first pole in the last 58 races. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing (lately), we’ll end the season the way we want.”
Busch and other Chase drivers are trying to do the same.
But Johnson, who last won the series title in 2013, continues to get in the way.
“I don’t want to be the spoiler,” Johnson said. “I want to lead laps. It’s not like, ‘I’m not into the Chase, let me get in your way.’ It has nothing to do with that. My motivation comes from wanting to win and going fast.
Ditto Busch and six other Chase drivers are scrambling to fill the three remaining spots for next week’s championship race in Homestead, Florida. Jeff Gordon already took a spot by winning in Martinsville, Va., two weeks ago.
Busch, who is seventh in the Chase standings, likely needs a win to get traded. At least he had a shred of hope in qualifying that he might have the machinery to do the job.
“The car (Chevrolet Haas Automation #41) has speed,” Busch said. “That’s the biggest thing I take away from qualifying.”
Despite starting eighth on the starting grid in the No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick, who sits third in the Chase standings, is still undoubtedly the driver to beat thanks to four straight PIR victories and five of the last six. In fact, the only scenario in which he wouldn’t be the driver to beat is if he suddenly announces his retirement.
“Nothing’s guaranteed, but my God he’s so good here,” Gordon said, referring to Harvick. “If it comes down to pure speed, I don’t see anyone beating it.”
Harvick’s strength is that he doesn’t need to win to advance.
Ditto for No. 2 Kyle Busch, who starts 10th.
Chase’s fourth-ranked Martin Truex Jr. continued his eye-opening quest for an unexpected title all season long with another solid qualifying effort. He starts fifth, one position behind Carl Edwards, who is fifth in the Chase standings.
Gordon starts 11th followed by Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano (starting 14th) and Keselowski (starting 18th).
Keselowski ranks sixth in the Chase and Logano is eighth. Logano only needs one win to earn a championship spot and Keselowski is almost in the same boat.
“(Harvick) is very fast for sure, very fast,” Logano said. “But often the fastest car doesn’t always win.”
May be. But don’t tell Harvick.
“We just never found anything that worked well for us in qualifying setups,” Harvick said. “But the car was really good in race trim.”
Good news for Harvick. Maybe bad news for everyone.