JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson took an immediate step toward another Sprint Cup title — but the five-time champion is well aware it was a small one.
Johnson won the pole Saturday for this weekend's Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway, an impressive start for the man whose streak of five Cup titles came to an end last year. The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins with Sunday's 400-mile event, but Johnson shrugged off any talk of an immediate statement.
"It's too early in the Chase to be over-the-top excited or down and out if you didn't qualify like you wanted to," Johnson said.
Johnson qualified at 182.865 mph, good enough for his second pole of the year and 27th of his career. The other 11 drivers in the Chase had mixed results in qualifying. Matt Kenseth was third, one spot ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Kasey Kahne was sixth — but Earnhardt will have to start from the back because of an engine change.
"I don't think we are super concerned," said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief. "We had a great car in practice and qualified really well so we showed we have good speed. Fortunately, this is a racetrack that there are multiple pit strategies and it's not a really simple straightforward pit strategy to call. I think there will be a lot of opportunities to use our good pit stops and place on pit road to get back toward the front."
Johnson has never won a Cup race at this track. If he can leave with a victory in the Chase opener, then that may be the time to celebrate a bit.
"I think a win sends a statement for sure. I'm not so sure that it's because I haven't won here before," Johnson said. "I've been so close before, that I don't think the statement would really be in that. ... We know what wins mean, and we know what max points mean, and it would be more in that than anything."
Denny Hamlin, the top seed in the Chase, was eighth, a spot ahead of Clint Bowyer.
"I just wanted it because I don't win poles all that often," Johnson said. "I was certain that a Chaser was going to win the pole today. I think that's the way it's going to be through the remaining races. You're going to see the best out of the Chase group."