AVONDALE, Ariz. – Brad Keselowski isn’t rolling over for Jimmie Johnson, not with two races to go in their championship battle, and not at Phoenix International Raceway.
Keselowski outqualified Johnson by 10 positions Friday at one of the five-time NASCAR champion’s best race tracks.
It was an unusual twist for the top two contenders, as Johnson is typically the better qualifier, and Keselowski has struggled in that area through the first eight races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
And there should be no question which driver would be in control at Phoenix, where Johnson is a four-time winner and has a 5.3 average finish and Keselowski has only one career top-five.
But when the qualifying session was over, Keselowski had locked down the 14th starting spot for Sunday’s race, while Johnson was in 24th. It’s the lowest qualifying position for Johnson in a Chase race since the 2010 opener at New Hampshire, and his worst this season since the August Bristol race.
“Wasn’t so good, but we’ve been fighting a little bit in qualifying trim,” Johnson said. “But, we’ve got a great baseline race setup to go off.”
Johnson struggled with the sun glare in the first turn.
“The glare was pretty bad getting into the turn, then getting the power down was tough for me up off of two,” he said. “Three and four were pretty good, I felt like on both of my laps, but I struggled oddly enough down there this time.”
Johnson moved into the points lead with his win at Martinsville 2 weeks ago, and widened the margin to seven points with a second straight victory last week at Texas.
But Keselowski is eager to reclaim the top spot he held down for 5 weeks of the Chase, and knows how to get it back.
“I’m running to win, whatever that means,” he said. “Win the race and things become a lot easier. You don’t have to worry about those things.”
Neither championship contender was near the front of the field, where Kyle Busch set a track record in winning the pole.
Busch ran a lap of 138.766 mph to earn the top starting spot, breaking the mark of 137.279 set by Carl Edwards in 2011.
It was a big improvement for Busch from a year ago, when he came into the race in crisis. He had to fight to keep his job after intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck Series race at Texas a week earlier, which led NASCAR to park him for the rest of the weekend, qualified poorly and finished 34th.
“It’s kind of cool because here a year ago we qualified 36th – dead last on speed – and then this year we’re fastest, top of the sheets,” Busch said. “It’s really good for all of us. I’m just proud of the effort.”
Martin Truex Jr. qualified second and Denny Hamlin was third to give Toyota the top three starting spots. Kasey Kahne qualified fourth and was followed by Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and Paul Menard. Regan Smith was eighth, Tony Stewart was ninth and Mark Martin rounded out the top 10.
The three Toyota drivers thought the track surface and grip was difficult, with Hamlin and Truex even calling it “treacherous.”
“At the start of practice it was pretty treacherous just because it’s been sitting, so it’s just tough to know,” Truex said of the track surface. “We go through so much with transition in the race car throughout practice because the track is new and the tires are kind of hard. This is a great race track and just hope the groove gets a little bit wider before the race starts.”
Top 5 qualifiers
1. Kyle Busch
2. Martin Truex Jr.
3. Denny Hamlin
4. Kasey Kahne
5. Aric Almirola