TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jimmie Johnson last started from the pole at Talladega Superspeedway in 2002, as the points leader, lined up next to Mark Martin.
He didn’t even make it to the first lap.
In a bizarre prerace mishap as the drivers were warming up their tires, a problem with Martin’s steering box caused him to run into Johnson. The two cars skidded into the infield grass, Johnson suffered damage to the front of his Chevrolet, and had dropped to the back of the field when the race began.
“Did you bring that same steering box back?” Jeff Gordon asked Martin on Saturday after rain washed out qualifying at Talladega.
The inclement weather led NASCAR to cancel the qualifying session and set the field for Sunday’s race on points — which put Johnson and Martin side-by-side again, with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon right behind them in the second row.
Gordon was only joking when he hinted at potential sabotage, but both he and Martin know they need something catastrophic to happen to Johnson on Sunday for either to have a chance of challenging him for the Sprint Cup title.
The three-time defending series champion has a commanding points lead with only four races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, with Talladega as the last remaining obstacle in his path toward a record fourth consecutive title.
The fastest track in NASCAR is the worst of the 10 Chase venues for Johnson, who has one victory but an overall average finish of just 17.7 at Talladega. Because of the unpredictability of restrictor-plate racing, the unknowns facing him on Sunday have left Johnson admittedly struggling to sleep the past few days.
“Falling asleep lately has been difficult, I have to admit,” Johnson said. “The brain wonders and thinks about a lot of different things. Especially when I come to a track like this.”
The rain means all 12 Chase drivers will start at the front of the field, exactly where they want to be.
“The safest place really is leading,” Johnson said.
Not always, as Johnson learned in 2002 when Martin had his fluke incident. It was Johnson who reminded him of it this weekend.
“I’m still embarrassed about that,” Martin said. “That’s a long way in the rearview mirror. Why don’t we look forward here instead of back? Not my proudest weekend.”
Johnson, who had taken over the points lead a week earlier, wound up 37th that day and dropped to third in the standings, his title hopes over.
“I remember thinking what the hell just happened?” Johnson recalled.
It’s those kinds of flukes he’ll try to avoid Sunday, but he’s also trying not to overanalyze the potential for disaster.
“You could worry yourself to death on how things will turn out here,” he said. “All it’s going to do is shorten your fuse, potentially put the team on edge to where you make bad decisions, and we don’t need that.”
After Saturday qualifying rained out; race Sunday
At Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Ala.
Lap length: 2.66 miles
(Field set by rule; car number in parentheses)
1. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet.
2. (5) Mark Martin, Chevrolet.
3. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet.
4. (14) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet.
5. (42) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet.
6. (2) Kurt Busch, Dodge.
7. (39) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet.
8. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford.
9. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota.
10. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford.
11. (9) Kasey Kahne, Dodge.
12. (83) Brian Vickers, Toyota.
13. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota.
14. (17) Matt Kenseth, Ford.
15. (33) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet.
16. (00) David Reutimann, Toyota.
17. (47) Marcos Ambrose, Toyota.
18. (31) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet.
19. (07) Casey Mears, Chevrolet.
20. (20) Joey Logano, Toyota.
21. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet.
22. (26) Jamie McMurray, Ford.
23. (1) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet.
24. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet.
25. (44) AJ Allmendinger, Dodge.
26. (19) Elliott Sadler, Ford.
27. (77) Sam Hornish Jr., Dodge.
28. (6) David Ragan, Ford.
29. (43) Reed Sorenson, Dodge.
30. (12) David Stremme, Dodge.
31. (96) Erik Darnell, Ford.
32. (98) Paul Menard, Ford.
33. (55) Michael Waltrip, Toyota.
34. (7) Robby Gordon, Toyota.
35. (34) John Andretti, Chevrolet.
36. (09) Brad Keselowski, Dodge.
37. (71) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet.
38. (82) Scott Speed, Toyota.
39. (87) Joe Nemechek, Toyota.
40. (66) Dave Blaney, Toyota.
41. (36) Robert Richardson Jr., Toyota.
42. (13) Max Papis, Toyota.
43. (78) Regan Smith, Chevrolet.