NASCAR

Johnson claims pole for Chase opener

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JOLIET, Ill. (AP)

Jimmie Johnson took an immediate step toward another Sprint Cup title - but the five-time champion is well aware it was a small one.

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Johnson won the pole Saturday for this weekend's Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway, an impressive start for the man whose streak of five Cup titles came to an end last year. The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins with Sunday's 400-mile event, but Johnson shrugged off any talk of an immediate statement.

''It's too early in the Chase to be over-the-top excited or down and out if you didn't qualify like you wanted to,'' Johnson said.

Johnson qualified at 182.865 mph, good enough for his second pole of the year and 27th of his career. The other 11 drivers in the Chase had mixed results in qualifying. Matt Kenseth was third, one spot ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr, and Kasey Kahne was sixth - but Earnhardt will have to start from the back because of an engine change.

''I don't think we are super concerned,'' said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt's crew chief. ''We had a great car in practice and qualified really well so we showed we have good speed. Fortunately, this is a racetrack that there are multiple pit strategies and it's not a really simple straightforward pit strategy to call. I think there will be a lot of opportunities to use our good pit stops and place on pit road to get back toward the front.''

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Johnson has never won a Cup race at this track. If he can leave with a victory in the Chase opener, then that may be the time to celebrate a bit.

''I think a win sends a statement for sure. I'm not so sure that it's because I haven't won here before,'' Johnson said. ''I've been so close before, that I don't think the statement would really be in that. ... We know what wins mean, and we know what max points mean, and it would be more in that than anything.''

Denny Hamlin, the top seed in the Chase, was eighth, a spot ahead of Clint Bowyer.

''I just wanted it because I don't win poles all that often,'' Johnson said. ''I was certain that a Chaser was going to win the pole today. I think that's the way it's going to be through the remaining races. You're going to see the best out of the Chase group.''

Not everyone in the Chase qualified near the top, though. Brad Keselowski was 13th, Martin Truex Jr. was 18th and Jeff Gordon was 19th.

TITLE BOUT

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''We ran the same time we did yesterday so it wasn't a very good lap,'' Gordon said. ''It's going to put us back. The car was a little bit loose. I think a lot of people are struggling with that.''

Greg Biffle was 22nd, defending champion Tony Stewart qualified 29th and Kevin Harvick was all the way back in 35th.

''Really loose. We were all over the place on that lap,'' Stewart said. ''Sunday is when it matters.''

Stewart has 10 top-five finishes this year - and only nine top-10 starts. His most recent victory - at Daytona in July - came after he started 42nd because of a failed inspection.

Aric Almirola, who isn't part of the Chase, qualified second Saturday.

Kenseth will start in the top three for only the third time in 2012, and he's eager to take advantage.

''I think it does matter probably more, where you qualified, than it did back in the day,'' Kenseth said. ''Everybody's closer to the same speed. It's more difficult to pass. Track position seems to be more important.''

Kenseth hasn't won at Chicagoland either and has only four top-10 finishes in 11 starts. Johnson at least has finished in the top 10 in eight of his 10 Cup starts at the track, including two second-place showings.

''I've dropped the ball, and then we've had some things work against us, but it's a track I've always enjoyed,'' said Johnson, who does have a Nationwide Series win at Chicagoland. ''I smile when I know I'm coming up here. I love the area, love the track.''

Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart

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