Jimmie Johnson gets pole; Kyle Busch questions tactics

LONG POND — Jimmie Johnson needed multiple attempts to make it through pre-qualifying inspection, then set a track record with a lap of 180.654 mph to win the pole Friday at Pocono Raceway.

Kyle Busch? He could only think the five-time Sprint Cup champion and crew were up to no good.

Johnson went 29th instead of his scheduled 24th spot, and the later start under the clouds as the track got faster may have given him an advantage over the cars that went out under the sun. Johnson had inspection issues last month at New Hampshire and used another late start to qualify third until his time was scrapped after the No. 48 failed inspection.

Are Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus just working around the rules? Or can they simply not get the car in tune in time for inspection?

“A lot of these other teams figure out how to play by the rules,” Busch said. “It seems like there’s one that’s sometimes late. Quite often, more than the rest.”

Busch will start second and Carl Edwards third. Ryan Newman, last week’s race winner at the Brickyard, starts fourth. Kurt Busch is fifth.

Johnson is tied with Matt Kenseth with a series-high four wins this season and he leads the points standings as he chases his sixth championship. Johnson is in position to go for the season sweep at Pocono, where he won from the pole in June. Johnson took that pole after the field was set on points because rain washed out qualifying.

Johnson took the top spot this time after a second pass through inspection. NASCAR determined the tow on his Chevrolet was off by one-thousandth of an inch — just enough to make Busch suspicious.

“There’s been some times this year where those guys go through four, five, six times and they’re always late,” Busch said. “Every time they’re late, they’re always fast. Maybe we need to be late.”

Johnson, never one to exchange in a verbal spat, brushed off Busch’s comments.

“It’s only (a few) spots, now. It didn’t make a difference,” he said. “I wish there was some master plan behind it all. They’re welcome to try it. They’re welcome to experience the stress that goes with it. My heart was pounding out of my chest trying to get in the car and beat the clock. I don’t wish that kind of stress on anybody. ... It’s not what I want to go through.”

IRL

Dixon ready to continue hot streak at Mid-Ohio: In Lexington, Ohio, Scott Dixon’s vacation isn’t much different than the vacations of most parents with young children.

A lot of running around. A lot of cleaning up. A lot of things to occupy your mind — and your time — other than work.

It was a welcome break for the two-time IndyCar champion, even if it came just as he was putting his early season doldrums firmly in the rearview mirror of his No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

Still, Dixon didn’t complain when he went back to work on Friday to prep for this weekend’s Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.

“You get into thinking, ‘Well are we making sure we’re keeping up with things? Are we going to go to the next track with an edge?’” Dixon said. “But you’ve just got to go in confident and try to approach it the same we do every other time.”

Things certainly looked normal as Dixon posted the fastest time in the morning session around the tricky 2.258-mile road course.

Then again, maybe it should. Dixon has stood atop the podium at the 13-turn test of nerves four times since 2007. It’s a testament to the speed his team has been able to find and his ability to keep moving forward.

Mid-Ohio may be the tightest course in the series. Room to pass is more rumor than fact. Qualifying near the front is at a premium. So is being able to defend your position. Few do it better than Dixon.

At least, when everything is clicking. For large stretches during the first half of 2013, it didn’t as one of IndyCar’s most consistent teams struggled, at least by their lofty standards.

On the weekends Dixon felt he had a good car, something would happen. His gearbox busted at Texas in June and he wound up 23rd. Engine woes at Iowa two weeks later send him spiraling to a 16th-place finish.

Frustrating isn’t quite the right word for it. Infuriating might be better for a driver who hadn’t finished outside the top four in the championship since 2006.

Things began to turn around at Pocono on July 7, at least from a karma standpoint. As they have on ovals all season, Dixon and teammate Dario Franchitti were markedly slow during qualifying, their Hondas failing to produce the horsepower and the speed of the Chevy engines driven by rivals at Andretti Autosport and Team Penske.

Savvy, however, not speed ruled the day. Able to stretch out their gas mileage, Dixon and Franchitti were able to revive their seasons. Dixon strolled to victory and Franchitti placed third.

Dixon made sure to get a picture taken with perpetually cranky owner Ganassi in the giddy aftermath because “it was the first time we’d seen him smile in a while.” The smile only grew broader the next weekend. Following an energizing test at Sebring in the middle of the week, Dixon swept a pair of races at Toronto. He pulled away from Sebastien Bourdais on Saturday, then led 81 of 85 laps a day later.

It was the kind of dominating performance that’s the standard at TGR. Asked what exactly happened during his midweek trip to Florida and Dixon grins and shakes his head.

“Everybody is pointing out this whole Sebring test like it was miraculous,” he said. It wasn’t, though Dixon does allow that it “did kind of put our head back on straight.”

That head is now pointing directly at Helio Castroneves.

While Dixon stresses it’s still too early to start thinking about the big picture, he trails the popular Brazilian by just 26 points with a third of the schedule remaining. The 92-point deficit he faced after Iowa suddenly seems a lot more manageable.

Just don’t expect Dixon to spend a lot of time this weekend searching for Castroneves’ No. 3. It’s still August. The season finale in California isn’t for another two-plus months. There’s time to either gain or give back ground no matter what happens on Sunday.

“It can get overwhelming if you start micromanaging points,” Dixon said. “Being in a session and being like, ‘Where’s Helio?’ If you’re not thinking about the object at hand, you can get sidetracked.”

The championship won’t be won in Ohio. It won’t be lost either. Dixon, though, won’t complain if the competition starts trending downward as he tries to ascend.

“We’ve had some (bad) races this year,” he said. “Hopefully that bad luck will spread out through some of the others that have not had that much bad luck.”

Newman waiting for a call after Brickyard win: Ryan Newman kissed the Indy bricks, then had to deal with the Brickyard 350.

That’s the estimated number of text messages he received from well-wishers for his win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.

Friends, family. Just about anyone who helped Newman on his path from the short tracks that dot Indiana to taking the checkered flag in one of the sport’s most prestigious races.

“The coolest part was that there were eight people, maybe, where I had to text them back and ask who it was,” Newman said, laughing.

But no team dialed up Newman and offered a ride for 2014.

No sponsor texted and said it would invest $20 million or so to follow him wherever he lands.

Newman’s future is no more settled entering Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway than it was before he snapped a 49-race winless streak. If any team’s in the market for a Brickyard winner, Newman is listening.

“The phone has not rung off the hook,” Newman said. “I didn’t expect it to and I think some people kind of expect it to. I am working on what I need to work on to be in a good, competitive position next year. The win helps, but it’s not a light switch. It doesn’t turn everything on bright.”

For now, Newman is out of work following this season. Stewart-Haas Racing signed Kevin Harvick to join the team next season, and team co-owner Tony Stewart informed Newman two weeks ago he won’t be brought back in 2014.

Newman is far from a title contender, but he at least forced his name into the conversation for a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship spot. He’s 16th in the standings but the victory put him in position to earn one of the two wild-card spots that go to drivers in the 11th to 20th spots.