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Johnson Updates His Road Course Resume at The Glen

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 7 2009
Jimmie  Johnson moves through turns during Friday's practice at Watkins Glen. Johnson won the pole for Sunday's race. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson moves through turns during Friday's practice at Watkins Glen. Johnson won the pole for Sunday's race. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Watkins Glen, N.Y. – Jimmie Johnson walked into the garage area at Watkins Glen International Friday morning without either a road-course pole or victory to his name.

Scratch the former. Johnson, the three-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, staked his first claim as a road-racing ace by qualifying on-pole for Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen. Johnson toured the 2.45-mile short-course in 71.340 seconds and 123.633 mph to earn his 20th career Cup pole but first in eight attempts at WGI.

How badly did J.J. want the point?

“Truthfully, in anything, second really sucks,” said Johnson, who edged Kurt Busch by a miniscule 0.008 seconds. “Third or fourth is much better than second because second, you’re looking at what could-have-been. And when I heard that Kurt was right behind us, I was pretty excited about that.”

Busch had emerged from practice atop the speed chart with a lap of 70.922 seconds/124.362 mph. Johnson ranked seventh at 71.589 seconds/123.303 mph amid a series of tire-selection decisions.

“I was really impressed with our pickup in speed because we struggled when we put stickers (new Goodyear Radials) on at the end of practice,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala SS. “I ran two-tenths faster on six-lap tires than I did on stickers, so I was really nervous for the (qualifying) lap and really relieved when it was over and excited when we pulled it off _ especially when the No. 2 (Busch) was right behind us. I said, ‘Yeah, we put down a good one!’ ”

That was the format Friday – one lap and done.

“Turn 1, I was trying to evaluate my brakes…that was my issue in practice,” said Johnson, who trails championship leader Tony Stewart by 197 points after 21 events. “One time I came out  and took the green and went into Turn 1 and locked the right front early in the braking zone and had to slow down to second gear all the way around the track, because I blistered the right front. It was getting ready to pop. And then the next time out on stickers, I did a better job of getting through Turn 1 but still smoked it into 1 and locked ‘em up getting into the Bus Stop (Turns 5, 6, 7, 8) and then into Turn 11.

“So I went into 1 in qualifying a little conservative, got through there decent and then into the Bus Stop I started to lock the fronts again. I knew if I stood on the brakes I was going to go off the track. So I just jumped off the brakes, let the tires recover and now I’ve entered the Bus Stop at a much higher pace than I anticipated and bounced off the curbs and made up some time. After I made it through the Bus Stop, I knew I could charge hard back. I messed up Turn 10 charging too hard, but it worked out. I think where I made up a lot of time was the Bus Stop. When I started to lock the tires up, I had no choice but to get off the brakes. I got off ‘em and somehow made it through there.”

Busch termed his lap of 71.348 seconds/123.619 mph “a solid run,” but his body language indicated he was beating himself up.

“To be outside pole is a good effort for us,” said Busch, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. “It gives us a great shot for track position early on in the race and (the opportunity) to see how the pace sets itself. I just felt like I left a little bit too much out there in qualifying. Maybe it was because I was looking at Denny Hamlin, who was second-quickest in practice (71.397 seconds/123.535 mph) and saw the (qualifying) lap time and it told me to run a bit conservative and not step over the line. I felt we were maybe a bit too conservative and Johnson snuck in there and got the pole.

“It was right there where I needed it to be, but I didn’t capitalize on the braking zones. Really just two heavy braking zones, like Turn 1 and getting into the Inner Loop/Bus Stop on the back straightaway. Those two areas, I thought I was conservative. I hit my marks easy but when you hit ‘em easy, it means you weren’t on that ragged edge.”

Denny Hamlin, winner of Monday’s rain-delayed event at Pocono Raceway, will start third after a lap at 71.653 seconds/123.093 mph. He will be joined in Row 2 by Marcos Ambrose, who timed in at 71.681 seconds/123.045 mph.

”It’s a good run for us,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota Camry. “We were good pretty much through practice and I was confident we’d be in the top 10. I felt like that lap would be eighth or ninth, but the track did slow up. The track was a little bit warmer (than practice), that’s the only thing I can think of. That – and it’s so hard to do it in one lap. In practice, we’re in the momentum of things. It’s easy to back-up that lap. When you have to do it kind of cold like that, it’s extremely hard to back-up that lap. I think that’s why you saw guys slow down.”

Rounding out the top 10 are David Stremme (122.824 mph), Ryan Newman (122.652 mph), Greg Biffle 122.519 mph), Kyle Busch (122.514 mph), Boris Said (122.495 mph) and Juan Pablo Montoya (122.081 mph). Veteran road-racer Max Papis (16th) was the fastest qualifying rookie at 121.653 mph.

Stewart, a four-time Cup winner here, will start on the inside of Row 7 (13th) after a lap at 121.864 mph. In contrast, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon – another four-time winner at The Glen – will start 31st after lapping at 121.046 mph.

“I was a little bit slow there in the Esses (Turns 2, 3 and 4),” said Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevy. “But I know we can gain a bunch of time there in race trim and it was pretty good there in race trim (during practice), so I’m pretty happy with our car.”

Johnson, meanwhile, savored his first Cup pole on either WGI or Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif.

“We were close at Sonoma once or twice and I lost it by a small margin,” Johnson said, “so to get it done hopefully shows the progress that I’m making – the team is making – on road-courses. Today was just one lap, and there’s a lot more laps (90 laps/220.5 miles) to be made and a lot of racing on Sunday.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 7 2009
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