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Jimmie Johnson takes pole, maintains momentum

AAA Texas 500, 3 p.m. Sunday, Texas Motor Speedway

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Friday, Nov. 02, 2012

Nobody’s nudging Jimmie Johnson off the front row anytime soon.

For the second consecutive week, Johnson won the pole, using a lap at 191.076 mph to claim the top starting position for Sunday’s AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Johnson turned last weekend’s pole at Martinsville, Va., into a victory and the Sprint Cup Series points lead. Friday’s pole-winning run keeps a sixth series championship squarely in his sights.

This weekend, however, Johnson’s closest competitor in the title hunt isn’t far behind.

Brad Keselowski, who trails Johnson by two points with three races remaining, qualified eighth-fastest – much better than last week when he had to battle from 32nd.

Johnson wasn’t taking anything for granted Friday.

At Martinsville after making his qualifying run, he remained seated in his No. 48 Chevrolet until he either got knocked off the top spot or won the pole.

After his lap Friday, he elected to do the same thing and proceeded to sit in his car for more than 35 minutes until the qualifying session was completed.

“I’ve watched more interviews where a guy climbs out of a race car to a microphone, and just at that point in time, they fall to second. I didn’t want it to happen,” Johnson said.

“I knew I put down a good lap. Very proud of the effort my team put into this race car today. We didn’t unload like we wanted to. We made a lot of progress through the practice session, and then got it right there for qualifying.”

The pole is Johnson’s fourth of the season and 29th of his career.

Oddly enough, he won at least one pole each year he has won the championship. Last year, when his NASCAR-record streak of five consecutive titles ended, he did not win a pole.

Greg Biffle, who won the spring race at Texas, qualified second-fastest, with Kyle Busch third, Clint Bowyer fourth and Martin Truex Jr. fifth.

After Keselowski, Bowyer (26 points behind Johnson) and Kasey Kahne (29 points back) are basically the only other viable title contenders left. Kahne will line up 13th Sunday.

Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team appear to relish the position they are in – and why not?

“There is the pressure to maintain, but I would much rather be leading the points than be anywhere else,” Johnson said. “Pressure shows up in a lot of different ways.

“I’m glad that we have a gap over (Bowyer and Kahne) because I like when it’s down to one person and not three or four to deal with.”

Keselowski was all smiles Friday, too. How much did the strong qualifying effort mean to his Penske Racing team?

“It feels like the pole. It may not be the pole, but it feels like the pole for us,” Keselowski said. “Our car has had a ton of speed since we’ve been here in race trim. Qualifying trim has been our weakness all year.

“I think this bodes very well for us on Sunday.”

Asked if he had something for Johnson, Keselowski smiled, then said, “Yes. I think so.”

Did he care to share what is up his sleeve?

“Just a smile and some confidence and a great team that’s been digging hard. I just feel really good about this week,” he said.

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