FONTANA, Calif. — Brian Vickers thought he finally had some good news to override the controversy of the past week.
The 25-year-old Red Bull Racing driver won the pole for Sunday’s Auto Club 500, barely beating heavily favored Jimmie Johnson. But, about an hour after taking the sixth pole of his NASCAR Sprint Cup career with a lap of 183.429 mph, Vickers found out his team would have to change the engine in his No. 83 Toyota, sending him to the back of the 43-car field.
He will still be listed as the pole winner, but the youngster will drop out of line when the cars start moving on Sunday and fall to the back, while Johnson, whose fast lap was 183.164, gets to lead the field to the green flag.
The pole would have been big for Vickers, especially in the wake of the Daytona 500 controversy that was sparked when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Vickers collided, setting off a 10-car crash.
Vickers had forced Earnhardt below the yellow out-of-bounds line on the 2.5-mile Daytona oval and Earnhardt turned back up the banking and hit Vickers, igniting the multicar crash and a whole lot of finger pointing.
“Obviously, the best way to move on from a situation or a controversy is to give them something else to talk about,” Vickers said Friday before learning about the engine change. “And, so far, we’ve done that this week in a positive way.
“After what happened last week, controversy aside, the only thing that matters in my mind when I think about Daytona is we didn’t collect the amount of points we needed or wanted to collect to race for a championship.”
He said he and his team would love to put Daytona behind them going from the pole to lead every lap and win Sunday’s race.
“I think the next challenge is going to be a lot more difficult than the first one,” Vickers said.
Much more so now.
Johnson, who has three wins on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval, was asked how the lack of offseason testing — a fan imposed by NASCAR to save the teams money in the current economic climate — effected Friday’s performance in practice and qualifying.
“I kind of forgot about the fact that we haven’t tested as today got started,” the three-time reigning Cup champion said. “I don’t know, I guess I haven’t put a lot of thought in to it. In some ways it reminded me of kind of the last time we were here.
“The guys that were fast last time at this track were fast again.”
Jamie McMurray was third at 182.653, followed by Kurt Busch at 182.556, Greg Biffle at 182.302, Jeff Gordon at 182.209, David Reutimann at 182.089 and A.J. Allmendinger, the fastest of the drivers who had to qualifying on speed, at 182.048.
Rookie Scott Speed, Vickers’ teammate, was ninth at 181.965 and Kyle Busch, who won the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race earlier in the day, rounded out at the top 10 at 181.919.
Tony Stewart, racing for his own Stewart-Haas Racing team for only the second time in a Cup event, was 11th at 181.901, while Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth was 24th at 180.818.
Failing to make the lineup were Todd Bodine, Tony Raines, David Starr, Mike Garvey and Sterling Marlin.