Chase is on for Jimmie Johnson
TALLADEGA, Ala. - For the first time since Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident, the focus was back on the racetrack.
Hendrick Motorsports proved yesterday it has the best superspeedway program in NASCAR with a sweep of the front row in qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway.
Mark Martin won the pole with a lap of 181.367 miles per hour, just a tick faster than the 181.360 posted by five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports now has won the pole at all four superspeedway races this season, and swept the front row in all but one.
Martin began his postqualifying news conference on a somber note, encouraging fans to visit the website dedicated to Wheldon. Today’s race, the Good Sam Club 500, is the first major auto racing event since the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas last Sunday.
The first of two memorials for Wheldon was yesterday, and the second is scheduled for today in Indianapolis about the same time the NASCAR race will end. NASCAR is honoring Wheldon with decals on its cars as well as a moment of silence before the race.
When the green flag drops, though, the drivers will have pushed Wheldon from their minds to focus on racing on NASCAR’s fastest and biggest track. There’s a championship on the line, too, and Johnson has a huge hole to climb out from if he’s going to have any shot at winning a sixth consecutive title.
A nasty accident last Saturday at Charlotte dropped Johnson from third to eighth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings, and with five races remaining, he has to climb out of a 35-point deficit. But Johnson won here in April, when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed him to the victory.
It’s going to be wide open, as drivers have spent the first two days at Talladega working on their strategy and picking drafting partners.
The Johnson-Earnhardt duo in April beat Richard Childress Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick in the push to the finish line. Bowyer, who settled for a very close second to Johnson, will start today’s race third.
Because of the two-car tandem style of racing that has developed this season at Daytona and Talladega - the two fastest tracks requiring the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates - it’s essential for everyone to find a drafting partner.
Tony Stewart has worked well this season with David Gilliland, but with the championship at stake, that’s one of the alliances that’s been dissolved.
Stewart, winner of the first two Chase races and only 24 points behind leader Edwards, can’t get help again from Gilliland because Gilliland is a Ford driver with an allegiance to Edwards and Matt Kenseth, who is third in the standings.