Jimmie Johnson: “I’m just not going to put my guard down”

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Two races remain in the 2013 Sprint Cup season and Jimmie Johnson is atop the standings. But he knows that nothing is settled as he and title rival Matt Kenseth prepare to continue their duel for the championship this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

Johnson’s bid for a sixth Sprint Cup effectively collapsed last fall at PIR, when he suffered a late-race tire failure and hit the wall. Brad Keselowski logged a Top-10 finish to leapfrog Johnson for the points lead, and one week later, he clinched his first Cup crown in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This past March, Johnson finished second at PIR to Carl Edwards. But that was then and this is now.

“I’m just not going to put my guard down,” Johnson said in a teleconference this afternoon. “We need to go into Phoenix and race well. We finished second there in the spring, so I feel strong about our set-up and the performance we should have there. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything and we need to go out and have a good, strong, clean weekend.”

Johnson has claimed four Cup victories at PIR, the most of any active driver. However, all of those wins came before “The Desert Jewel” was reconfigured and given more progressive banking in 2011.

That runner-up result in March has Johnson believing that he and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are figuring out how to unlock performance at the “new” PIR. Nonetheless, he admitted to having less confidence at PIR than he did in seasons past.

“If there was one guy sad to see the old configuration and asphalt go away, it was me,” he said. “We just had something that worked there and fit my driving style, and we were able to win a lot of races.

“A part of our sport is dealing with change, and we have cars changing and surfaces changing, and I feel like we’re going in the right direction with the race track. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that this weekend.”

And should he do so and pull off a second consecutive victory, that could provide him with the points cushion he needs going into the last race of the year at Homestead.

But Kenseth has been a more-than-worthy adversary for Five-Time during the post-season, and the two of them will likely be close to each other throughout Sunday’s Advocare 500.

This year, Johnson is battling for title No. 6 against a driver that, like him, has earned the title of Sprint Cup champion – whereas, last year, Johnson faced a driver that hadn’t raced for a Cup title prior to then.

When asked about how the experiences compared, Johnson didn’t say which was a less stressful situation to handle for him, only saying that he’s “found a lot of peace” in expecting the best from his rivals.

However, he noted that there’s something different about going for a first Cup title.

“It’s really hard to know the truth in it all, but I do feel a driver and team competing for their first is dealing with stress and pressure that someone that’s racing for their second, third, fourth, that they just don’t have that same pressure,” he said. “I only know that from my own experience. My first was far more stressful than anything I’ve done in my life.”

Josef Newgarden wins pole for Grand Prix of Alabama

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With time running off the clock, Josef Newgarden lapped Barber Motorsports Park with a speed of 122.773 mph to win his third career pole and first on this track in the Grand Prix of Alabama.

Newgarden was .0128 seconds faster than teammate Scott Dixon in second.

Newgarden has two previous wins at Barber. He won last year’s edition of this race after starting seventh and in 2015 from fifth.

“I didn’t know if that was going to be enough,” Newgarden said after winning the pole.

“Team Chevy has done a good job,” Newgarden said. “They’ve really given us good power this weekend – good driveability. We’re going to need some fuel mileage tomorrow, which I think we’ll have. But it’s going to get mixed up with the rain.”

Dixon’s lap of 122.750 mph was not quite enough.

“I’m sure you could pick out a number of different things on a lap when it’s that close,” Power said about what made the slight difference between him and Newgarden. “A little mistake out of 9; a little lift here or there.”

Sebastien Bourdais (122.605 mph) qualified third, with Ryan Hunter-Reay (122.159) and James Hinchliffe (121.859) rounding out the top five.

Scott Dixon was the last driver in the top six.

Fast 12

Newgarden topped this chart with a speed of 123.475 mph.

He brought Power, James Hinchcliffe, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Sebastien Bourdais along with him to the Fast 6.

Marco Andretti (122.480), Alexander Rossi (122.216), Simon Pagenaud (122.050), Robert Wickens (122.042), Zach Veach (121.784) and Ed Jones (120.984) failed to advance.

Round 1, Group 1

Newgarden posted the fastest single lap in round one, group one of qualification for the Grand Prix of Alabama with a speed of 122.550 mph.

Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe, Wickens, and Andretti also advance to the fast 12.

Taking the final slot was Jones with a speed of 119.835 mph after an off-course excursion in final practice.

This was Andretti’s first advancement to the fast 12 for the first time since 2014.

Round 1, Group 2

Power had the fastest lap of 121.570 mph.

Bourdais, Veach (who is battling food poisoning-like symptoms), Rossi, and Pagenaud grabbed positions 2-4.

Scott Dixon had an uncharacteristically slow lap of 121.006, but managed to advance to the fast 12 when the session was red-flagged for an incident involving Tony Kanaan.

With three minutes remaining, Kanaan spun into the tire barriers while leaving pit road. Since he brought out the red flag, he lost his qualification time of 119.996 mph.

Takuma Sato had slipped off-course midway through the session and posted only the Ninth-fastest speed of 120.789 mph.