TALLADEGA, Ala. — For the first time since Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident, the focus was back on the race track.
Hendrick Motorsports proved Saturday it has the best superspeedway program in NASCAR with a sweep of the front row in qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway.
Mark Martin won the pole with a lap of 181.367 mph, just a tick faster than the 181.360 posted by five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports now has won the pole at all four superspeedway races this season, and swept the front row in all but one.
“Our qualifying on (restrictor) plate tracks this season has just been amazing,” said Johnson.
Martin began his post-qualifying news conference on a somber note, encouraging fans to visit the web site dedicated to Dan Wheldon. Sunday’s race at Talladega is the first major event since the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed in the IndyCar season finale at Las Vegas last Sunday.
The first of two memorials for Wheldon was Saturday, and the second is scheduled for Sunday in Indianapolis about the same time the NASCAR race will end. NASCAR is honoring Wheldon with decals on its cars that display the Lionheart Knight image that Wheldon affixed to the back of his helmets, as well as a moment of silence before the start of the race.
When the green flag drops, though, the drivers will have pushed Wheldon from their minds to focus on racing on NASCAR’s fastest and biggest track. There’s a championship on the line, too, and Johnson has a huge hole to climb from if he’s have any shot at winning a sixth consecutive title.
A nasty accident last Saturday at Charlotte dropped Johnson from third to eighth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings, and with five races remaining, he’s got to climb out of a 35-point deficit. But, Johnson won here in April, when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed him to the victory.
As Johnson made his victory lap that afternoon, his crew chief thanked Earnhardt over the team radio.
“Dale, thank you man,” Chad Knaus radioed, “next one is on us, brother.”
But the stakes are too high right now for Johnson to simply agree to pay back the favor: Earnhardt is a distant ninth in the standings.
“I remember Chad saying it, and believe me, the Junior Nation has not forgotten,” Johnson said. “We worked yesterday and we’ll just have to see how things unfold in the race and where we feel we’re the fastest. If we can’t win the race, we certainly want him to.”
It’s going to be wide open, though, as drivers have spent the first two days at Talladega working on their strategy and picking drafting partners.
The Johnson-Earnhardt duo in April beat Richard Childress Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick in the push to the finish line. Bowyer, who settled for a very close second to Johnson, will start Sunday’s race third.
Bowyer was followed in qualifying by Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr.
Paul Menard qualified seventh and was followed by David Ragan, Sprint Cup Series points leader Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman.
Because of the two-car tandem style of racing that has developed this season at Daytona and Talladega, the two fastest tracks require the use of horsepower-sapping restrictor plates, its essential for everyone to find a drafting partner. Tony Stewart has worked well this season with David Gilliland, but with the championship at stake, that’s one of the alliances that’s been dissolved.
Stewart, winner of the first two Chase races and only 24 points behind leader Edwards, can’t get help again from Gilliland because Gilliland is a Ford driver with an allegiance to Edwards and Matt Kenseth, who is third in the standings.
“It is such a tight points battle right now and we are going to try to help the Ford guys out all we can,” Gilliland said. “We are going to go that route. We are One Ford. That is the goal for this weekend. I feel good about it.”
Stewart, who will start 12th Sunday, heard rumblings of the Ford pact when he first got to the track.
“We thought we had a plan and then it sounded like it got dismantled,” he said.