Newman wins pole, Johnson 15th
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmie Johnson finally wasn't flawless at Martinsville.
The points leader and winner in five of the past six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races on the smallest, tightest oval in the series qualified 15th Friday.
Ryan Newman won the pole for Sunday's race with a lap at 96.795 mph, followed by Jeff Gordon at 96.519. Mark Martin, who trails Johnson and Gordon at the midpoint of the 10-race playoff, will start fourth, giving Hendrick Motorsports two cars in the front two rows.
The pole is Newman's second of the season and 45th of his career.
"It's the place to be, no doubt, and it's the place to finish," Newman said.
Newman downplayed Johnson's poor showing, saying he noticed the three-time defending series champion spent very little time in practice working on his setup for the two-lap run.
In all, only four of the 12 participants in the Chase for the championship qualified ahead of Johnson. Most chose to focus on their racing setup with prospects for additional practice sketchy. Heavy rain fell early at the speedway, and more is forecast for Saturday.
The results, still, were a source of hope for Johnson's Hendrick teammates and closest pursuers, especially Gordon, with only five races left to close a 90-point gap.
"Any time we can put a gap in between us, as well as the pit selection, that's a step in the right direction for us, and we're going to take anything good that comes our way and try to take advantage of it," said Gordon, a seven-time pole-sitter on the 0.526-mile track.
Johnson said he isn't concerned with where he will start.
"It'll hurt us on pit road for sure, but I really think that the way the car's going to be and how well I can work traffic here, that it shouldn't be too big of a problem," he said.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press