CONCORD, N.C.—Jimmie Johnson is returning to his dominant ways at the perfect time. His latest accomplishment: the fastest qualifying lap of the NASCAR season.
The three-time defending Sprint Cup champion and points leader looked the part Thursday, earning the pole at Lowe’s Motor Speedway with a blistering lap of 192.376 mph.
Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet had the best grip in the rain-delayed qualifying in unseasonably cool conditions.
Mark Martin, sitting second in points, will start second after a lap of 191.816 mph. Kasey Kahne qualified third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart.
Johnson took the points lead for the first time this season after winning Sunday at California. It was clear from the practice session Thursday that Johnson had the best car.
“We’ve still got 500 miles to run,” Johnson said. “I think if we can lead a lot of laps, win the race, something along those lines will send a statement.”
Qualifying was pushed back two hours because of intermittent rain. Sprint Cup teams didn’t hit the track for practice until after dark, when Johnson dominated.
The cool conditions - the temperature dipped into the upper 40s before qualifying was over - led to the fastest times at any track this season.
The previous fastest lap was 190.907 by Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Texas. There were 29 drivers that bested Ryan Newman’s pole speed of 188.475 mph from the May race at LMS.
Johnson, going out 11th of 47 cars, quickly showed he was the class of the field, coming close to the track record of 193.216 set by Elliott Sadler in 2005.
“Man, it’s fast,” Johnson said. “Whatever is going on with the tire combination right now and the track, there is a ton of grip.”
Martin, going out 25th, came the closest to his teammate. He’ll be on the front row Saturday sitting 12 points behind Johnson in the fifth of the 10 season-ending Chase races.
“An enormous amount of that speed was the track conditions,” Martin said. “Surprisingly, it was really fast, grippy, for no rubber. Sometimes this place needs rubber to get better. I think it’s going to be great.”
Juan Pablo Montoya, sitting third in points, 58 behind Johnson, qualified 18th. Stewart, moving up the standings in the past couple weeks, is 84 points behind and has a good starting position.
“We’re really happy with that,” Stewart said.
Jeff Gordon qualified ninth and Kurt Busch 15th. The worst starting spot for a Chase driver is 30th for Brian Vickers.
The field figures to have trouble catching Johnson, who dominated at the this track from 2003-05, winning four straight times. But Johnson hasn’t won since the suburban Charlotte track was repaved in 2006.
With the weather expected to stay cold Saturday, Johnson is bracing for fast speeds.
“It has the potential to be a much faster pace than we normally see,” Johnson said. “My only fear is that the faster we go the narrower the racing line becomes and we could see more of a single-groove race track. That’s the only downfall.”
Newman qualified sixth, followed by Mike Bliss and Brad Keselowski, who both entered needing to qualify on time.