Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson returned to form Friday evening at Texas Motor Speedway, qualifying on-pole for Sunday’s 23rdannual O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
Johnson toured TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval in 28.588-seconds at 188.890 mph in his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, completing an impressive sweep of all three sessions. Johnson will be joined in the two-car front row by Hendrick Motorsport teammate William Byron in the No. 24 Axalta/Primeline Chevy after his lap of 188.416 mph.
In addition, Hendrick’s Chase Elliott will start third after lapping at 188.271 mph in the No. 9 Kelley Blue Book Camaro.But this moment clearly belonged to Johnson, who now has 36 Cup poles in 622 series starts.
“I feel like over my career good Fridays mean a good Sunday,” said Johnson, who earned his second pole in 32 Cup races at TMS. “We’ll have to see how it works in traffic and dirty air. The work that went into these cars the last 36 months, we’re not out of the woods yet. But this is a great weekend for us to work on our 1.5-mile program and we’re off to a great start. Our struggles have been highly frustrating because of the effort we’ve put into it.”
Rounding out the top-12 after the Hendrick trio were Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Hemric, Joey Logano, Ty Dillon, Bubba Wallace, Erik Jones and Brad Keselowski.
Sunday’s race, scheduled for 334 laps/501 miles, will get the green flag at 2 p.m. (CDT) with FOX beginning its coverage at 1:30 p.m. Radio coverage will be provided by MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing, is the defending event winner. Busch will start 18th in the 39-car field.
Johnson limped into Texas after finishing two laps off of Keselowski’s winning pace in the No. 2 Ford Mustang fielded by Penske Racing around Martinsville Speedway’s half-mile oval last Sunday.
Working this season with crew chief Kevin Meendering in place of long-time partner Chad Knaus, Johnson sent a message earlier Friday when he paced the afternoon practice at 189.747 mph.
“We’re working hard,” Johnson said. “I know I post it, and I say it, and I know my team does, some believe us and some don’t. But this is a tough, tough sport and we’re guilty of trying too hard and being too aggressive with setups at times. But with all of that said, very aggressive coming here to Texas and it paid off. We really put speed in the right areas of that car and had a solid practice session and three rounds of qualifying.”
Johnson’s stellar performance capped another convoluted group qualifying session, which saw most drivers choosing to remain parked on pit road until the waning moments for a one- or two-lap flyer. NASCAR sought to address that situation with a rules change earlier this week, one that might require another revision or stricter enforcement.
“We all knew there would be some challenges with this rules package,” Johnson said. “NASCAR is trying to keep an open mind, we’re competitors and trying to work the system as best we can. But in the final round, it’s either 12th or the pole. It’s so hard for NASCAR to call this or officiate it. It’s just tricky and I appreciate the fans being open-minded to this…it’s a moving target and we’re trying to make the most of it.”
Johnson’s Round 3 hot lap knocked Suarez of Stewart-Hass Racing off the provisional pole in the closing seconds after his lap of 187.881 mph in the No. 41 Ruckus Ford Mustang.
Ironically, Suarez had put down a lap of 187.871 mph around a clear track to put the No. 41 on the provisional pole in Round 2. With approximately 1:16 remaining in the 10-minute session, the field exited pit roaden masse with Johnson moving to the top of the chart at 187.956 mph.
Johnson also paced Round 1, and the top 24 drivers advancing into Round 2, with a lap at 188.626 mph.
Alex Bowman, Johnson’s Hendrick teammate, saw his session end at the opposite end of the grid. Bowman brought out a caution and a short red flag stoppage when he slid high and banged the Turn 2 wall with the right rear quarter-panel of the No. 88 Lluma Camaro. Bowman headed to the garage area, where his crew was in the process of rolling out his backup Chevy.
“I just got loose,” Bowman said. “We were pretty much wide-open in practice and there’s not much room for error when you’re riding wide-open around this place. But that’s on me.”