Jimmie Johnson kept his promise - to try to qualify up front - and at the same time took another giant step toward his record fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Turning a lap in 31.049 seconds (173.919 mph), Johnson won the pole for Sunday's Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Rookie Scott Speed, the last driver to attempt a qualifying lap, took advantage of the late draw and claimed the second starting position for the Cup finale at 172.695 mph.

Johnson, who can lock up the Cup title with a finish of 25th or better at the 1.5-mile track, said he "lessened the odds" of a title-robbing calamity by earning the top starting position. The pole is Johnson's fourth of the season, his second at Homestead and the 23rd of his career.

Marcos Ambrose qualified third at 172.678 mph, followed by Mark Martin, who is second in the Cup standings, 108 points behind Johnson. After the field takes the green flag Sunday, Martin will be the only driver with a chance to overtake his teammate for the championship.

"I'm definitely excited for the track position and (the choice of) that first pit stall," Johnson said. "One thing that you probably might know is how difficult pit road is here, with the sun setting, to find your pit box, or even see the parameters of your pit box. So there's a lot of reasons to qualify well, and I'm very happy that I did.

"There is some relief, but at the same time, I'm trying to keep it simple - yes, today's behind us, sleep well tonight, but treat tomorrow like a whole new day, first day at the track, start all over again."

Both Speed and Ambrose, hardly regulars at the front of the starting field, vowed to race Johnson hard, but respectfully.

"I think the thing we all fear most is being the idiot who takes out the 48 (Johnson) and ends the four-championship streak," Speed said.

Joe Nemechek, Dave Blaney, Mike Skinner, Max Papis and David Stremme failed to qualify for the 43-car field.

Terry Labonte will start 43rd on a past champion's provisional. Reed Sorenson spun during the second of his two qualifying laps but will start 42nd on an owner points provisional.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News



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