INDIANAPOLIS - Jimmie Johnson flew around Indianapolis Motor Speedway at an average speed of 181.763 mph Saturday morning to win the pole for Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.
But the question that emerged in the two afternoon practices was just how long Johnson and the other 42 drivers in Sunday's race can go fast without wearing their tires down to the cords.
Teams were seeing severe wear after just a handful of laps in the first practice, raising concerns about the 400-mile race. They lobbied, without success, to get more sets to get through the practices. Teams were allotted eight set, two more than what's typical for other tracks, to get through qualifying and practice and then nine sets for the race.
"Asking anybody to build a tire and come to this place and run two days of practice for a 400-mile race with the weight of these race cars, horsepower and amount of load is like asking somebody to invade Russia with a loaded shotgun," said Chris Carrier, crew chief for Sam Hornish Jr.
"Everybody is concerned about it."
Tire wear is not unusual at this 2.5-mile oval, especially early in the weekend on a surface that has been diamond ground. That grinding creates a coarse surface that is particularly abrasive for tires on heavy stock cars until small bits of rubber fill in holes in that ground surface.
The concern Saturday was that this process of "rubbering in" the track was not happening as rapidly as it has in past years.
Teams were changing tires after as few as five laps in the first practice, but the tires seemed to be lasting a little longer in the final session in which Johnson backed up his qualifying speed with the fastest lap in the final session.
Goodyear's Greg Stucker said Sprint Cup racing's tire supplier has enough tires to give each team an additional set on Sunday. Goodyear will maintain that additional supply, instead of allowing individual teams to buy extra sets to manage what develops.
"We've got enough tires for Sunday's race," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said. "There will be up to 10 sets per team, and not everybody is going to use all of their tires in the last practice."
Stucker said Goodyear and NASCAR discussed having a competition caution - perhaps as many as two - early in the race so teams could check wear, but believed the situation would take care of itself as Sunday's race unfolds - as it has in past Cup races here.
"I can promise you, no matter what they do, the first time we try to make a full gas run tomorrow there are going to be some nervous people on pit row," Carrier said. Typically a load of fuel will last about 30-33 laps.
Wear wasn't the only issue the teams were dealing with. The rubber coming off the tires was being ground into a fine powder, and that powder was getting into vents used to conduct air into various areas of the car and clinging to the backs of the new Cup race car being used here for the first time.
Robby Gordon brought out a red flag during the final practice when his car slid out of the low groove and got into that dust, which caught on fire briefly from the heat under the car.
Johnson, meanwhile, said he was impressed with his No. 48 Chevrolet after setting the mark in qualifying.
"I had a great car, a car that I could get aggressive with," said Johnson, who won this race two years ago. "I drove probably 50 laps this morning in my mind to make sure I hit my marks. ...This track sucks you into doing things that you regret."
Mark Martin had few regrets about his lap at 181.393 mph that put him on the outside of Row 1 for a race that he's been saying for weeks he thinks he can win.
"That's one step in not embarrassing myself," Martin said.
Ryan Newman starts third in his Dodge with Kasey Kahne, also in a Dodge fourth. Jeff Gordon, a four-time winner here, starts fifth. Tony Stewart, who has won two of the past three Cup races at Indy, starts 14th.
Kyle Busch, who has won the past two Cup races and seven races so far this year to take command in the points standings, starts 19th.
J.J. Yeley was the final car to qualify and ran 176.737 mph to earn the 39th starting spot. That knocked Bill Elliott out of the field in the No. 21 Ford, which means Elliott's streak of running in all of the Cup races here will end.
That will leave Martin, Gordon, Bobby Labonte (who starts 27th) and Jeff Burton (32nd) as the only Cup drivers to have run in all 15 of the Cup events here.