NASCAR & Auto Racing

Johnson will open title defense from the Daytona 500 pole

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Jimmie Johnson started his reign over NASCAR’s top series with a victory in the 2006 Daytona 500, kicking off a season that wound up with him winning his first of two straight Sprint Cup titles.

He will start his bid for a third straight title from the pole in the 50th running of the sport’s biggest race after turning a lap at 187.075 mph in Sunday’s qualifying.

“I am going to ride this wave as long as I can,” said Johnson, who also won a Daytona 500 pole as a Cup rookie in 2002. “We got everything out of it, great engine and great car.”

Less than 24 hours after new Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Budweiser Shootout, Johnson kept the organizational momentum going.

Johnson also stopped Toyota, which had been the story with fast cars in preseason testing, from stealing all the headlines. But Michael Waltrip will get his share for being second fastest at 186.734 mph to lock down the other front-row 500 spot.

Waltrip was THE story on qualifying day one year ago even though his car never made the track. It was impounded during inspection after a “foreign substance” was found in its engine, setting Waltrip’s first season as a driver/owner into a tailspin he quite nearly never pulled out of.

“I would venture to guess that Jimmie Johnson knew he was in the race when he got up this morning,” Waltrip said. “I didn’t. I’m going to have to think I am the happiest guy in Daytona. I am second, but I am first in happiness.”

Waltrip also is assured of having one of the two other cars he owns in the field for next week’s race. David Reutimann was fourth fastest overall at 186.483 mph, making him third best among cars not in the top 35 in last year’s car owner points and therefore not assured spots in the 500.

Since at least three “go-or-go-home” cars will make the field on speed, Reutimann and Joe Nemechek, third fastest at 186.498 mph in his Chevrolet, are in the race.

Reutimann and Nemechek, whose car is powered by a Hendrick Motorsports-built engine, won’t know where they’ll start until after Thursday’s Gatorade Duels. But Johnson and Waltrip are on the front row regardless of the outcome of the 150-mile heats.

Johnson finished third in the Bud Shootout Saturday night driving a back-up car after having his primary for that race wrecked in practice on Friday. His car for the 500 is one built specifically for that race – until Saturday’s practice it had never been on a track.

"It unloaded off the truck yesterday, fresh,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “It hit the track and was the fastest one. We have more than 500 guys back at the shop and this pole is for those guys, for Mr. Hendrick and the team he has allowed us to build.”

Hendrick Motorsports teams won 18 races and a championship last year. Waltrip’s three-car team struggled just to make races and very nearly went out of business in the process, thanks in no small part to the way things started for him her a year ago Sunday.

“I am as emotional today as I was a year ago but for drastically different reasons,” Waltrip said. “I am happy, but I still want to cry because I am that happy we were able to get through all of that.”

Boris Said, in a Ford, and Patrick Carpentier, driving a Dodge owned by Gillett Evernham Motorsports, find themselves in the kind of limbo that exists only under the unique qualifying format for the Daytona 500.

Said was ninth fastest overall at 185.893 mph and Carpentier was 11th best at 185.766 mph. They were fourth and fifth fastest among the go-or-go-homers and that could be enough to get them in the Daytona 500 if Waltrip, Nemechek or Reutimann finishes first or second among those cars in their respective qualifying races.

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