Johnson lands Phoenix pole
Jimmie Johnson had the luck of the draw on his side Friday, and he used it to claim pole position for the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Johnson was the 41st of 43 drivers to make a qualifying run, well after the track surface of the mile oval had cooled down in the shadow of the Turn 1 grandstands. Matt Kenseth, meanwhile, was the fourth driver out, when track conditions were at their hottest -- and slowest.
Johnson set a new track record with his 25.858 second/139.222 mph lap. Kenseth ran 26.143/137.704.
"It seems like Jimmie has been in 'kill' mode for the last few weeks," observed Logano. "He's really fast."
Running a brand-new Hendrick Motorsports chassis, Johnson scored the 32nd pole of his 434-race Sprint Cup career. He won from the pole in the 2008 Fall race at Phoenix, one of his four race wins at the desert mile.
"Track records are awesome," Johnson said. "I don't qualify on the pole that often, so it's a big thing.
"It's definitely something I'm proud of for today, but it's still a long race where a lot can happen and strategy plays a big part," he added. "So we did ourselves a lot of favors here today by getting the pole, having that first pit stall, and track position to start the race with."
However, Johnson discounted his 13-place advantage over Kenseth for the start of Sunday's race.
"Look at the history -- Matt hasn't been at his best in qualifying but he's always there at the end of the race," Johnson said. "We need to make sure we have everything buttoned up, make the right decisions, and execute in the race."
-- John Oreovicz
Jimmie wins the pole and Matt qualifies 14th for Sunday's Cup race at Phoenix. Denny, Joey, Kyle and Gordon complete top-5. #NASCAR
— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) November 8, 2013
Martin ready for next chapter?
Veteran Mark Martin, 54, who has retired, reconsidered, partially unretired and made a full-fledged comeback in just the past seven years of his 31-year Sprint Cup Series career, strongly suggested he was about to embark on a "new chapter" beyond racing after Sprint Cup qualifying Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.
Martin, who was allowed out of his partial-season deal with Michael Waltrip Racing this summer to replace the injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet, said he plans only to test the car until Stewart returns and has "shut down every inquiry that I've had for any of the top three divisions for 2014."
If he does actually retire -- a word he did not use on Friday -- his last scheduled Sprint Cup start would come next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. There was beyond-heavy suggestion in his answers on Friday.
"The garage is full of drivers that are on their game and I've gotten all the good out of mine," Martin said. "I squeezed every ounce of it out and no one can say I didn't. I worked really, really hard the last 10 years to continue to be a formidable opponent in the garage. And from time to time when stuff was right, I was able to [be competitive] -- and I'm proud of that."
Martin said he didn't anticipating missing the sport "because I got to do that and was real good at it." He said he was thankful he did not have to "quit before I'm ready," but noted he planned to be involved in the sport in some capacity.
"I'm going to be around. I'm going to be involved in racing," said Martin, adding that he would not contest the Daytona 500, a race he never won.
Martin proved himself not quite ready in the past. He retired from full-time Cup racing with Roush Fenway Racing in 2006 only to undertake a partial schedule with ill-fated Ginn Racing the next season, and another with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2008 before beginning a three-year run in the No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Martin began racing part-time again for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012. He said he knew soon after ceding the Hendrick Motorsports ride to Kasey Kahne that he was then not ready to retire.
Now, he said, "it's time for me to open a new chapter."
Martin, who has 40 Cup wins, was scheduled to be replaced in the No. 55 Toyota in 2014 by Brian Vickers before he was allowed to leave for SHR, where he will have contested 12 of the final 13 races.
-- Brant James
The way to win for Kenseth?
Whether Kenseth, who enters the penultimate race of the season seven points behind Johnson, will utilize the strategy is debatable, Keselowski said.
But a week after Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus described Kenseth as a more "formidable" foe than Keselowski was in the final two races last season, Keselowski seemed to revel in poking at the perception of imperviousness around the five-time champion.
"That team's success comes from almost the 'gosh, golly gee' approach of not racing hard and just beating you on pure speed, which has been their traditional advantage," said Keselowski, a Penske Racing driver and the 2012 series champion. "For them, I wouldn't want to have to race somebody that is going to race me hard because that's not their wheelhouse.
"I think that was one of our strengths last year. If I were going to give Matt a piece of advice, I'd say use the s--- out of him every time you get. Run him hard because that's his weakness. But Matt's got to race how he wants to race."
Johnson entered the Phoenix race last season with an identical seven-point margin after winning -- as he did last week -- at Texas, but ultimately succumbed, Keselowski said, to aggressive tactics in practice, where he ran the No. 2 Dodge hard and close to Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.
"We ran him really hard at Texas [in the race] and then again here at Phoenix, maybe not so much in the race but definitely in practice -- ran him hard, and there were some practice sessions where I got by him and just ran him really hard and had a lot of fun with it," Keselowski said.
Johnson said he didn't specifically recall Keselowski's tactics, but said title challengers sizing each other up in practices is "not uncommon." He and Kenseth do the same, he said.
Still, Johnson blew a tire in the Phoenix race last fall, finished 32nd and fell to second place in the standings, 20 behind Keselowski entering the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"In the [Phoenix] race, they drove the car too hard until it blew out a tire," Keselowski said. "You can look at it and say it was a tire failure or whatever, but those in the garage that know how the cars work, know that it was reaching too hard and the failure was caused from that. I feel confident in that. And that's that group's weakness."
Two more mechanical problems at Homestead for the No. 48 team sealed a championship margin for Keselowski and dropped Johnson to third in points.
Johnson refuted Keselowski's theory, saying, "We love to race hard. That's what we're here to do." The tire failure, he said, was a result of pushing too hard, he admitted, but came from trying to improve against a Keselowski car that "had us covered."
"Last year here, they were better than us, for sure," Johnson said of the Phoenix race. "We worked real hard to try to play catch-up through the course of the weekend, and sure, we had a tire failure, and yes, we overworked the tire. We created an issue ourselves. We were lacking some speed. The 2 had us covered the whole time here. In that particular run where the tire blew, I look back on it and think, 'Man, if I had preserved my tire a little bit more and didn't overwork my equipment and speed up that tire blowing and create that issue, we'd go to Homestead with a much smaller deficit and have a much better chance.'"
-- Brant James
— John Oreovicz (@IndyOreo) November 8, 2013
No penalties for Wallace
NASCAR will not punish Darrell Wallace Jr. for making physical contact with Chad Frewaldt after their incident during a Camping World Truck Series practice at Phoenix International Raceway on Thursday.
Frewaldt, making his first start in one of NASCAR's three national touring series, spun Wallace by drifting up into him after Wallace made a pass.
Wallace, who two weeks ago became the first African-American to win a national touring series race since 1963, ran up the track to yell at Frewaldt when he lowered his window netting and admitted in interviews to making contact with Frewaldt's helmet.
Wallace told NASCAR.com: "I knew if I tried to throw a punch I'd probably break my hand because he still had on his helmet. I might have pushed his head over a little bit to get his attention."
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said the sanctioning body met with both drivers after the practice. The race is scheduled for Friday at 8:25 p.m. ET. Frewaldt, 43, has three ARCA starts over three seasons, while Wallace, 20, is striving for the truck series Rookie of the Year award and is sixth in points.
-- Brant James
The festival of Friday press conferences is underway. pic.twitter.com/6rTwmfKace
— John Oreovicz (@IndyOreo) November 8, 2013