It is true that both last season and this season, Jimmie Johnson entered the final two races of the Sprint Cup Series season with a seven-point lead over his nearest rival.
That’s where the comparisons will end.
Johnson made sure of that on Friday by winning the pole for Sunday’s AdvoCare 500k at Phoenix International Raceway.
Yes, he still will begin the race with a seven-point lead over Matt Kenseth – like his seven-point advantage over Brad Keselowski one year ago – but on Sunday he’ll start 23 positions better in this race.
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Johnson’s track-record average lap speed at 139.222 mph knocked Denny Hamlin into second place. The pole is Johnson’s third of the season and 32nd of his career. It was also the 19th time a qualifying record has been set in the Cup series this season.
“It’s still a long race where a lot can happen and strategy plays a part in what takes place in Sunday’s race,” Johnson said. “So, we did ourselves a lot of favors here by getting the pole, having that first pit stall and track position to start the race with.
“A lot of things will be in our favor, but we still have to go out there and get to work to get the job done on Sunday.”
Even the vast improvement over last season’s starting spot and his advantage over Kenseth (who will start 14th) is not enough for Johnson to alter his approach.
“If you look at the history of Matt, qualifying hasn’t been his best, but he is always there when the checkered falls,” Johnson said. “That is what I have to expect out of he and his team once again.”
Johnson’s dominating performance and victory last weekend at Texas combined with his track-record pole run Friday left Hamlin and Joey Logano, who qualified second and third respectively, believing Johnson is well on his way to a sixth series championship.
“Last week, I ran second to (Johnson) for a while and saw the speed in his car,” Logano said. “And then he unloads (Friday) and you watch in practice how fast his car was.
“It seem like when they’re running for that championship they find that extra notch that a lot of teams can’t find. It seems like he’s been on ‘kill mode’ the last few weeks.”
Hamlin, who is teammates with Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing, and has also battled down to the wire with Johnson for a championship, sees something similar.
“They are one of the few teams in the garage that can win at every type of racetrack that we go to,” Hamlin said.
“Those guys had their struggles right before the Chase started, but I think everyone in the garage knew that they can kind of turn it up at will and this is typically the time of year they start doing that.”
While Hamlin said he will do whatever he can to help Kenseth win the title, he admitted Kenseth and his team “have their work cut out for them.”
“I’m rooting for them,” Hamlin said.
Kyle Busch qualified fourth and Jeff Gordon was fifth.
The remainder of the Chase drivers start as follows: Clint Bowyer, sixth; Kasey Kahne, seventh; Kurt Busch, eighth; Kevin Harvick, ninth; Dale Earnhardt Jr., 11th; Ryan Newman, 17th; Greg Biffle, 18th; and Carl Edwards, 23rd.