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Earnhardt Jr. headlines lineup as NASCAR goes to Martinsville

The track at Martinsville Speedway is the smallest on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit and always delivers exciting racing — and Sunday will likely be no different as Dale Earnhardt Jr., above, and Brad Keselowski battle for the points lead.

The track at Martinsville Speedway is the smallest on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit and always delivers exciting racing — and Sunday will likely be no different as Dale Earnhardt Jr., above, and Brad Keselowski battle for the points lead.

Johnson posts record speed in winning pole for Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — So what else is new?

Jimmie Johnson, who won last fall’s race at Martinsville Speedway from the top starting spot, continued his mastery of the paper-clip-shaped track during Friday afternoon’s time trials.

In the first competitive appearance of NASCAR’s Gen-6 race car at Martinsville, Johnson blistered the vaunted short track in 19.244 seconds (98.400 mph) in winning the pole for Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500, as the top six drivers in the field topped the former track record of 98.084 mph established by Tony Stewart in October 2005.

In winning his third Coors Light pole award at Martinsville and the 30th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pole of his career, Johnson edged Marcos Ambrose by .007 seconds. Brian Vickers qualified third, followed by Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon. Kahne and Gordon, Johnson’s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, ran identical speeds (98.185 mph), with Kahne getting the fifth starting spot based on his car’s higher standing in owner points.

In his first practice run earlier in the day, Johnson knew his No. 48 Chevrolet SS was fast.

“In the first run out, we were in (qualifying) trim and made two or three laps, and I knew right away that we had a great shot at it today,” said Johnson, a seven-time winner at Martinsville. “At that point, I just needed to do my job and not mess up.

“So I’m very proud of that. It’s very easy to (mess up) at this race track, especially once practice ends. You sit and have lunch and relax for a couple hours and have to do it all over again. A great day across the board — team, driver, engine, car, everything that’s new. We were able to step up and figure it out and get the car dialed in.”

Early in Friday’s session, the track record fell. Logano, the third driver to make a qualifying run, toured the .526-mile short track in 19.269 seconds (98.272 mph), breaking the record set by Stewart, one of his Fontana antagonists from two weeks ago.

Six cars later, Ambrose (98.384 mph) knocked Logano off the provisional pole, and Vickers followed with a lap at 98.287 mph to push Logano back to third after 14 of 44 cars had taken time trials. Johnson’s pole run late in the session bumped Logano to fourth.

The No. 2 Ford of defending series champion Brad Keselowski was late getting through inspection and made it to the grid with seconds left on the five-minute clock. Keselowski nevertheless qualified seventh at 98.078 mph.

RIDGEWAY, Va. — After a weekend off, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series revs back into action at one of the highest-action tracks on the circuit — Martinsville Speedway.

The layoff may have allowed tempers to calm a bit after flaring up during the last two races that saw several drivers mix it up on and off the track. Whether or not drivers choose to mind their P’s and Q’s during Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500 is anybody’s guess — but the tight quarters of Martinsville likely won’t extinguish any fiery tempers.

Thirty of the last 32 races held at the smallest track (.526 miles) on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit have featured double-digit number of caution flags, with a track record 21 (for 127 caution laps) in the October 2007 race.

With all that took place at Bristol and Auto Club Speedway, the fact that the sport’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has taken a 12-point lead over reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski has been slightly overshadowed. However, the 38-year-old driver from Kannapolis, N.C., doesn’t mind.

“I feel like (the lack of attention) gives us the opportunity to keep focusing on what we need to do,” said Earnhardt. “We’re not winning races, and I don’t expect to get much attention until we can win races.

“You know, if we go out and win some races, we’ll get credit where credit is due, but we ran well, we’ve gotten lucky, we’ve had good cars, we’ve worked hard. … I wouldn’t expect the spotlight to be much brighter than it is.”

Earnhardt’s ascension to the zenith of the leaderboard after the Auto Club Speedway race marks the first time in his career where he’s held the top position in the standings in two consecutive seasons. He was first in the points after the 20th and 21st races of last season. The only other season he held the lead was in 2004.

Although Earnhardt has never visited Victory Lane at Martinsville in 26 attempts, the small track in southwest Virginia is one of his best venues statistically. He has led more laps there (868) than at any other track. His average finishing position of 13.0 at Martinsville is his third best, behind only Bristol (11.6) and Atlanta (12.5). His 14 top-10 finishes there ranks second only to Daytona, where he’s posted 15 top 10s.

Earnhardt’s driver rating (99.8) at Martinsville is a personal best, and fourth among active drivers behind only seven-time winners Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and four-time winner Denny Hamlin. Additionally, Earnhardt has more green-flag passes (917) than any other active driver.

As tough as it is for a veteran driver to win in Martinsville, Earnhardt knows it’s even tougher for a rookie to come away with a decent finish. He knows because he’s experienced the same growing pains.

“I remember the first several races I ran there, I ran into everything,” said Earnhardt. “I ran into other race cars, walls, pace cars, just about everything that could be ran into, I found it.

“And you know, it was real frustrating because I had thought of myself as a short-track driver, and I thought that I had honed these skills on these short tracks in the Southeast, and this should be where I excel the most.”

Sunday’s race will feature the two Sunoco Rookie of the Year leaders (tied with 54 points), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick, both of whom have never turned a lap at Martinsville. For Patrick, her appearance will mark the first time a female has appeared in a NASCAR Sprint Cup event at the track.