Jimmie Johnson, his eyes squarely on a sixth NASCAR championship, set the tone for what could be yet another dominating weekend in the desert by winning the pole at Phoenix International Raceway.
He did it with a track record.
The five-time NASCAR champion turned a lap of 139.222 mph in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on Friday to break the mark of 138.766 set by Kyle Busch last November.
"Track records are awesome," Johnson said after Friday’s qualifying session. "I don’t qualify on pole all that often, so I take great pride in them, especially track records. Very cool to do, and clearly a great time in the season and a great time in the Chase."
Matt Kenseth, who trails Johnson by seven points in the standings, will start 14th Sunday in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
He knows he has a lot of work ahead of him this weekend in making his car better, and then trying to catch Johnson on Sunday.
"This track in the spring was extremely hard to pass at, probably one of the toughest tracks that we go to and I don’t know if it will be any better or not this time," Kenseth said. "Pit strategy was all basically the same the last time we were here. So, unless you have cautions fall funny, I don’t know if you’ll be able to do it on pit strategy. I think you’re going to have to have a good balance, good speed, you have to be able to pass, have to have good pit stops, all these things.
"I don’t feel it’s a track where you’re going to get a whole bunch of free ones from a strategy call. I think you’re going to have to be good all day."
Denny Hamlin qualified second with a lap at 139.023 for JGR, but he went out much later in Friday’s session than teammate Kenseth.
Joey Logano qualified third in a Penske Racing Ford, and Kyle Busch was fourth as both of Kenseth’s teammates out-qualified the title contender.
Both Hamlin and Logano marveled at Johnson’s performance.
"He’s been in kill mode for a while," Logano said. "When they are running for that championship, they find that extra notch that a lot of other teams can’t find."
Johnson is coming off a dominating performance last week at Texas, where he led 255 of the 334 laps to win his sixth race of the season and break a tie with Kenseth in the standings.
"Last week, I ran second to him for a while and just to see the speed in his car — and then he unloads today and you watch in practice how fast his car was," Logano said. "He’s got that next notch and he’s going really fast right now."
Hamlin, who lost the title to Johnson in 2010, said it was inevitable for Johnson to hit his stride.
"Everyone in the garage knew they could turn it up at will, and this is typically the time of the year that they start doing that, especially when they are in championship contention," Hamlin said, adding that Johnson would have to have an off day for Kenseth to have a shot at winning the title.
"And when I say `off,’ he’s going to have to finish fifth or sixth to give Matt an honest shot at beating him," Hamlin said. "You already know this weekend is pretty much crossed off as being an off weekend."
Johnson said he doesn’t think the No. 48 team is doing anything different.
"It’s hard when you are inside of it, inside the car, inside the team, to know what the difference is, because we are doing the same stuff," Johnson said. "But when I look around at what other champions do to do win, they always find a way to find a little more. Somehow we are doing that, yes, I recognize that, but it’s not a concerted effort. It’s not something we are doing any differently. We are trying to rise up to the pace of (Kenseth) and beat him."