The six-time Sprint Cup champion won the pole Thursday night for the Coca-Cola 600, turning a lap at 194.911 mph at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the third round of NASCAR’s knockout qualifying format.
It was the first pole of the year for Johnson, who has yet to win a race this season.
“It certainly shows that we’re going to be strong this weekend,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that it sends the same message that winning two or three races will send. But I would love to rattle off two or three wins and have people fear the No. 48 as they have in the past. I don’t think a pole position does that to the garage area, but you have to start somewhere.”
Brad Keselowski qualified second and will start on the front row for the seventh time this season. Kasey Kahne was third, followed by Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer.
Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon’s struggles in practice runs carried over to qualifying. He didn’t make it out of the first round of qualifying and will start 27th — one spot behind last week’s All-Star race winner, Jamie McMurray.
Johnson has won six Sprint Cup races at the Charlotte, twice from the pole.
He said he isn’t concerned that he hasn’t won a race this season, which would secure a spot in the Chase for the Cup. What has bothered him is the lack of consistency.
“We have been close to some wins and been pathetic at other tracks,” Johnson said.
Johnson was asked if he agrees with the notion that some detractors have enjoyed the fact that he hasn’t won yet.
“I think there are some people getting satisfaction out of it,” Johnson said. “But if I win, I win too much. If I don’t win, they say you aren’t winning enough. So it doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t win.”
Johnson was a non-factor in the All-Star race last week at the track in his bid for a three-peat. He said his crew changed the setup in his car this past week, borrowing some advice from teammate Kasey Kahne.
“We learned some things from last week,” Johnson said.
Keselowski said he was bummed he got beat out for the pole — again.
It was the sixth time this season he has qualified second.
“It’s like kissing your sister,” Keselowski said.
Patrick will start in the top 10 for the third straight week. She was fast throughout the qualifying session with the top lap in the second round of 194.595.
But her lap in third round was more than one second slower.
Joey Logano, who is off to the best start of his young career with two wins this season, will start eighth and will be considered one of the favorites on Sunday.
Logano has already won twice this season and has historically run well at Charlotte with three top-five and six top-10 finishes in 10 career Cup starts at Charlotte.
Track temperatures reached 106 degrees at the start of qualifying, but cooled significantly as the sun set behind the grandstand and the speeds picked up dramatically.
Drivers had problems in the first two turns early in qualifying complaining their cars were tight, and had to adjust on the clock.
Under the new format all cars are allowed 25 minutes to qualify with the top 24 based advancing to 10-minute session in round two. From that group, the top 12 advanced to the final, five-minute round.
“The great thing about the new qualifying sessions is there are multiple opportunities to get it right and that is a good thing,” Keselowski said. “That is why it is so much fun.”