(Photo: AP/Mike McCarn)

Jimmie Johnson takes Coca-Cola 600 pole, is first win of 2014 next? Also, Danica Patrick qualifies 4th

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Still in the hunt for his first win of 2014, Jimmie Johnson took a big step in that direction on Thursday, earning the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion set the pace for Sunday’s longest and grueling race of the season with a speed of 194.911 mph. It was his fourth career pole for the 600.

“We don’t care what anybody says about this race team, we know what we’re capable of,” Johnson said. “We knew we had a great race car today and wanted to take advantage of it. We celebrated (after winning the pole), executed and we did our jobs.

“Qualifying days usually aren’t our best, but when we qualify well, we know we’re going to race well, so I’m real optimistic about Sunday. I look forward to giving it a good run Sunday night.”

Brad Keselowski will start on the outside pole, qualifying with a speed of 194.567 mph. It’s Keselowski’s seventh front row start in the first 12 races of 2012.

“We’ve qualified second a lot this year,” Keselowski said with a laugh. “Doggone it, it’s like kissing your sister. We’re running where we want to run up front, we just have to get a little better finishes.”

Kasey Kahne was third-fastest (193.618), followed by Danica Patrick’s best qualifying effort of the season thus far at 193.334 mph, which is also the best qualifying position for a female racer ever at CMS. It’s also Patrick’s best qualifying effort on a non-restrictor plate track and her second-best overall qualifying effort in her Sprint Cup career.

Patrick is still riding momentum from her career-best finish of seventh two weeks ago at Kansas.

Clint Bowyer was fifth-fastest (193.244), while sixth through 10th were Denny Hamlin (193.119), Kyle Busch (193.092), Joey Logano (192.472), Marcos Ambrose (191.673) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (191.272).

The other two drivers to advance to the third and final round of knockout qualifying were Matt Kenseth, also winless in 2014, followed by Kevin Harvick.

Of note in the qualifying session:

* Time ran out for Harvick and Kenseth, who failed to make qualifying runs in the third and final session.

* Points leader Jeff Gordon struggled and will start 27th.

* Kurt Busch, who will attempt to be the first driver to race earlier Sunday in the Indianapolis 500 and then compete in the evening’s Coca-Cola 600, will start 28th.

Here’s the starting lineup for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600:

Row 1 Jimmie Johnson (194.911 mph), Brad Keselowski (194.567)

Row 2 Kasey Kahne (193.618), Danica Patrick (193.334)

Row 3 Clint Bowyer (193.244), Denny Hamlin (193119)

Row 4 Kyle Busch (193.092), Joey Logano (192.472)

Row 5 Marcos Ambrose (191.673), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (191.272)

Row 6 Kevin Harvick (193.959), Matt Kenseth (192.898)

Row 7 Aric Almirola (192.692), Trevor Bayne (192.486)

Row 8 Martin Truex Jr. (192.438), Brian Vickers (192.027)

Row 9 Justin Allgaier (191.945), Tony Stewart (191.925)

Row 10 Brian Scott (191.884), AJ Allmendinger (191.829)

Row 11 Paul Menard (191.707), Carl Edwards 189.980)

Row 12 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (189.208), Greg Biffle (184.344)

Row 13 Kyle Larson (190.840), Jamie McMurray (190.255)

Row 14 Jeff Gordon (189.673), Kurt Busch (189.553)

Row 15 Alex Bowman (189.514), Michael McDowell (189.148)

Row 16 Cole Whitt (189.115), Austin Dillon (189.062)

Row 17 David Gilliland (188.732), Casey Mears (188.534)

Row 18 David Ragan (188.455), Ryan Truex (188.422)

Row 19 Josh Wise (188.258), Joe Nemechek (187.963)

Row 20 Michael Annett (187.806), Landon Cassill (187.559)

Row 21 Reed Sorenson (187.207), Ryan Newman (186.890)

Row 22 Blake Koch (185.931)

DID NOT QUALIFY: Dave Blaney, J.J. Yeley

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IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Carlos Munoz

Carlos Munoz
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver roster in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series. Next up in 13th is Carlos Munoz, who fell back to earth a bit after winning Indianapolis 500, then series rookie-of-the-year honors in consecutive years.

Carlos Munoz, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2014: 8th Place, Best Finish 3rd, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 8 Top-10, 0 Laps Led, 10.5 Avg. Start, 12.6 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 13th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 3 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 25 Laps Led, 14.0 Avg. Start, 12.1 Avg. Finish

Munoz fell down to earth a little bit in his second full season in IndyCar, albeit not as badly as fellow 2014 rookie Jack Hawksworth, who’d switched teams and had a myriad of issues throughout the season. He won his first race in the rain at Detroit race one, which was well judged, but there were precious other highlights from the driver who has showcased “wow” potential in the past.

His qualifying fell off year-to-year and that was probably the single thing to pinpoint as to why the decline occurred, falling from eighth to 13th in points. What had been a 10.5 average in 2014 fell to 14th this year, and behind teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Ovals seemed his strongest type of circuit this year on the whole. Like teammate Justin Wilson, he’d been in position to score what would have been his third straight Indianapolis 500 top-five finish if a late splash of fuel wasn’t needed. Sixth at Texas from fourth on the grid marked his best overall weekend of the year, and fifth at Iowa and Pocono were also fairly good results.

But whereas Munoz picked his spots well last year and delivered a handful of podiums, his Detroit win marked his only podium visit this year. He didn’t really make much of an impression and was more anonymous than not over the course of the year. His future with Andretti is uncertain for 2016.

Williams maximizes wet setup work despite limited running in Sochi

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With action pretty much limited in both practice sessions due to the diesel spillage in free practice one and rain in free practice two for the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi, teams could only do limited wet-weather runs.

Williams Martini Racing tried to make the best of the circumstances, as one of only five teams that completed laps in FP2 (McLaren, Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Ferrari) with eight cars.

Felipe Massa led second practice but it was an essentially meaningless session.

“It was quite a stunted session today which stopped us from completing all of the work we wanted to,” said Rob Smedley, Williams’ head of vehicle performance. “We had planned to run in the wet but we had a strange situation this afternoon in that half of the circuit was much wetter than the other half which made most of the tests null and void.

“We have been working on the wet set-up of the car and so wanted to get out at the end of FP2 to see the progress we have made. In a similar vein to our low speed corner work in Singapore, we seem to be making progress. We got through all of the bits and pieces we wanted to get through in terms of control systems and power unit set-up, and we have to go into tomorrow with a good plan for FP3 to get the car set-up for qualifying and the race.”

Valtteri Bottas finished third in Sochi a year ago, while Massa seeks a rebound after a fuel flow issue in qualifying resigned him to a Q1 elimination and an 11th place finish.