Johnson wins pole for Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- Jimmie Johnson is off to a good start in his quest to win a third straight championship.

On Sunday, Johnson began the defense of his NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship by capturing the pole for the 50th running of the Daytona 500.

Johnson won his second Daytona 500 pole with a fast lap of 187.075 miles per hour during Sunday's qualification session. He also won the pole as a rookie in 2002.

"It's great, I'm so proud of this race team because a lot goes into it," Johnson said. "Everything aligned just right; we got great speed out of the car."

Johnson will start alongside Toyota driver Michael Waltrip for next Sunday's race. Waltrip qualified at 186.734 mph.

Waltrip was the center of controversy after last year's Daytona qualification session when an illegal additive was discovered in his fuel. He was able to race his way into the 2007 Daytona field through one of the Gatorade Duels at Daytona qualifying races.

This year, he appears to have it made as only the top two cars are guaranteed their starting positions in the race. The remainder of the lineup will be determined by Thursday's qualification races.

The top 35 in points from last season are locked into the race. Two of the non-qualified drivers will advance into the starting lineup from each of the two 150-mile duels.

Three more will be added to the lineup based on speeds from Sunday's session with a 43rd starting position reserved by a past Cup series champion.

Those three drivers that are first on the list of being locked in include third-place qualifier Joe Nemechek, who was third fastest in a Chevrolet at 186.498 mph, Toyota driver David Reutimann at 186.483 mph and Boris Said, ninth quickest at 185.947 mph in a Ford but next in line in the "go or go home" group.

Johnson scored his 14th career Cup pole and can spend Thursday's first Gatorade Daytona Duels qualifying race fine-tuning his race car for next Sunday's Daytona 500.

"It puts us in a great situation where we don't have to have a lot of risks," Johnson said of Thursday's 150-mile qualifier. "We are one of the favorites but until we get into traffic we won't know. Handling is going to be a premium.

"It's real exciting to see everything over the offseason come together. To see that come together, it was a strong run off the truck. It says a lot for the team and the preparation. We didn't lose anything over the off season."

For the second day in a row, team owner Rick Hendrick had something to celebrate. He was in victory lane Saturday night after his newest driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., won the Budweiser Shootout.

On Sunday, it was Johnson's turn to bring some glory to the team owner.

"It's always neat to get down here and get a win but the pole is something the guys work for all winter long," Hendrick said. "Winter testing was good but Chad Knaus (crew chief) and the guys put a lot of work on it. To know you are going to be in the Daytona race on the front row is good."

Two years ago, Knaus was ejected from the Daytona garage area when he was caught cheating in qualifying. The next Sunday, Darien Grubb took over as interim crew chief and Johnson was able to win the Daytona 500 for the only time in his career.

After all cars clear post-qualifying inspection on Sunday, Knaus can now focus his attention on next week's race.

"There is a lot of emphasis to be on the Daytona 500 on the pole," Knaus said. "You get to walk around for a week with your chest pumped up and that's really good. This car only has a total of 12 timed laps on it.

"It's the most prestigious pole to get for the season. Indy (the Brickyard) is probably the second. The thing about the pole for the Daytona 500 is you spend a week and a half amongst your peers and you are the fastest. There is a lot to be said for that. A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on this."

Sunday's qualifications set the starting lineups for Thursday's two races. Johnson starts the first race on the pole followed by Nemechek, who was the surprise in qualifying by driving for the one-car Furniture Row team based in Colorado, far from the North Carolina hub of Sprint Cup Racing.

Hendrick driver Casey Mears starts third in the first race followed by Said and Earnhardt in the 27-car race.

Waltrip starts on the pole of the second Duel followed by Reutimann, Dave Blaney, Travis Kvapil and Denny Hamlin. That race has 26 starters.

Nemechek, who was once known as "Front Row Joe" for his penchant at starting on the front row in the 1990s, gave hope to the little teams in the lineup.

"Awesome day," he said. "Anybody not locked in the top 35; this is an awesome day. To end up third, that is what we are sitting around here talking about."

Ironically, the engine in Nemechek's car is from Hendrick Motorsports.

"There are a lot of challenges the team has to overcome but the team is good," Nemechek said of his operation. "We have some good people in place. We are a single-car team and when you look at the teams that we beat today, multi-car teams, it just says a lot for these guys.

"This is huge for the team and huge for me. I am really looking forward to the 150s and then the race."

Waltrip was another driver who has overcome hard times at Daytona. Last year, his car failed post-qualifying inspection when a mysterious substance was found in his fuel system. His speed was disallowed and he had to race his way into the Daytona 500 starting lineup through the Daytona Duels.

"I love Mr. Hendrick, I respect him, I try to live my life where other people say things to me like they do when he leaves the room but there is no way they are happier than me," Waltrip said. "But none of them are happier than me. I'm first in happiness.

"They knew what they were going to do today but I woke up in a fog."

After winning Saturday night's Bud Shootout, Earnhardt qualified 15th but could still be one of the favorites to win the 50th Daytona 500.

That means some inner-team competition at Hendrick between three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, 2006 winner Johnson, 2004 winner Earnhardt and Casey Mears.

"We've really used the rivalry among ourselves in the cars in a positive way," Johnson said. "We know what they have versus what we have. We try to use what they have and beat them and then this progression grows. Notebooks were opened, we were all honest and true what we were doing and that brought us to a higher level. We've been on a good pace doing that.

"We're further ahead now than where we were last year."