Footsteps closing in on Jimmie Johnson, but he maintains grip on first place

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Jimmie Johnson has to hear the footsteps getting closer and closer.

Johnson remains atop NASCAR’s Sprint Cup standings for the 12th consecutive week after Sunday’s race at Kentucky, but his lead in the points is definitely tightening.

Johnson’s high point this season was a 51-point edge over Carl Edwards after JJ’s win at Pocono three weeks ago. After Sonoma, it was 31 points in front of Edwards, but went back up to 38 points after Kentucky.

But the rest of the pack is closing in: Clint Bowyer is only 41 points behind Johnson after Kentucky, Kevin Harvick is 66 points back, Kentucky winner Matt Kenseth is 82 points behind and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 98 points in arrears.

With 17 races down and nine more to go to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a number of drivers are sitting in some pretty uncomfortable positions right now:

* Topping the list of guys starting to worry are defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who fell out of the top 10 after Sunday’s race at Kentucky. Keselowski is now 145 points behind Johnson and in 13th place.

* Three-time Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart, whose most recent title came in 2011 in the closest season finish in NASCAR history (beat Carl Edwards by a tie-breaker), dropped to 16th after Kentucky, 153 points behind Johnson.

* Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon still has a good shot at climbing back into the top 10. While Gordon is 133 points behind Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, the driver of the No. 24 Chevy is just two points out of 10th place (Joey Logano).

* Ryan Newman, who may or may not be back with Stewart Haas Racing next season (depending upon sponsorship and a new contract), has fallen to 18th place, 162 points behind Johnson. With no wins, Newman’s chances of making the Chase grow slimmer with each race.

* Denny Hamlin, who missed four races earlier this season with a neck and back injury, is a massive 281 points behind Johnson, currently in 25th place. To make the Chase as a one of two potential wild cards, Hamlin not only has to climb back into the top 20, he also has to win at least two races in the next nine – a tall order, indeed.

“Fast Ed” Carpenter takes 3rd career pole for Indy 500; Danica to start 7th

Pole winner Ed Carpenter is hugged by teammate Danica Patrick. Photo:IndyCar
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Ed Carpenter, the king of the front row at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, reigned supreme again Sunday, taking the pole for next Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

It’s the third time Carpenter — nicknamed “Fast Ed” — has started the 500 from the top spot, having also done so in 2013 and 2014, along with starting second in last year’s race.

Carpenter led off with the fastest one-lap speed of the day at 230.088 mph – the only driver over 230 mph – and continued on to accumulate a four-lap average speed of 229.618 mph, nearly a full mph faster than Simon Pagenaud (228.761 mph), who will start second and in the middle of the front row.

Will Power (228.607 mph) will start on the outside of the front row. Team Penske grabbed second through fourth and also the eighth position.

Chevrolets make up four of the top five and seven of the top nine. The only Honda driver in the top five is Sebastien Bourdais in fifth.

The first driver of the Fast Nine to take the track, Danica Patrick – who will make the final start of her multi-faceted racing career in the 500 – qualified seventh with a four-lap average of 228.584 mph.

Here’s how the first three rows stack up (inside driver, middle driver, outside driver):

Row 1: Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power

Row 2: Josef Newgarden, Sebastien Bourdais, Spencer Pigot

Row 3: Danica Patrick, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon

Here’s comments from the Fast Nine:

Ed Carpenter (229.618 mph, 1st): “I’m the 11th to get three (poles), but I want to add my name to the list of winners here. I can’t wait for Sunday. The car was perfect. It was awesome to drive that car. Hopefully, we’ll be able to close the deal this year.”

Simon Pagenaud (228.761 mph, 2nd): “We have good cars, fast cars and I’m just super proud. Obviously, I wanted to get the pole, but it’s racing. Luck is on my side today. We’re in a very good position and I’m thinking positive today.”

Will Power (228.607 mph, 3rd): “Just a couple little bad shifts and little less downforce and it would have been a little closer. It all makes a difference, it all adds up, but that’s Indy for you. You can’t second guess.”

Josef Newgarden (228.405 mph, 4th): “We’re competitive. We want all four of these cars to be up-front. It’s good to be with Chevrolet, they do a lot here at Indianapolis. It was an overall good run, so I’m satisfied. You always feel like you had something to do different after you did it. Hindsight is always 20-20, right?”

Sebastien Bourdais (228.142 mph, 5th): “It was pretty stressful. The car was very much on top of the track, very little downforce conditions. The guys did a good job, gave me a fast car and I really had to wheel it.”

Spencer Pigot (228.107 mph, 6th): “Starting inside the top 9 is a big achievement for us. For me, it’s at least 20 positions better than I’ve ever started here. Now that qualifying is over, we’ll focus on the race. … It’s a massive improvement for me. I like our chances.”

Danica Patrick (228.090 mph, 7th): “It was fairly consistent. All in all, a good feeling. It’s good to have that part done. I was pretty nervous. … Now it’s time for 500 fun miles.”

Helio Castroneves (227.859 mph, 8th): “I was praying for rain but it didn’t happen (he said with a laugh). Congrats to Ed (Carpenter). We took a gamble, had nothing to lose here and that’s what we did. It is what it is. Eighth position, we can win the race from there. Now, I’ve got to think about the big number.”

Scott Dixon (227.262 mph, 9th): “We didn’t run this morning so it was following the conditions. We struggled a little and maybe had a couple things that didn’t pay off. We’ll keep trucking on and see ourselves move up next weekend.”

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As for qualifying for positions 10th through 33rd:

* Defending 500 winner Takuma Sato qualified 16th.

* 2016 500 winner Alexander Rossi qualified a disappointing 32nd. Rossi had a strong run in the first of his four laps at 227.454 mph, and then suddenly dropped off to 224.152 on the third lap and a very disappointing 221.619 mph on his final lap, plunging him from potentially starting on the fourth row to the last row.

* Another disappointing effort came from Graham Rahal, who will start 30th, on the outside of the 10th row.

* Also, Matheus Leist, driving for Indy 500 legend A.J. Foyt, qualified 11th, making him the highest-qualifying rookie.

Here’s how Rows 4 through 11 lineup look (inside driver, middle driver, outside driver):

Row 4: Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist, Marco Andretti

Row 5: Zachary Claman Demelo, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Charlie Kimball

Row 6: Takuma Sato, Kyle Kaiser, Robert Wickens

Row 7: James Davison, Max Chilton, Carlos Munoz

Row 8: Gabby Chaves, Stefan Wilson, Sage Karam

Row 9: Zack Veach, Oriol Servia, JR Hildebrand

Row 10: Jay Howard, Ed Jones, Graham Rahal

Row 11: Jack Harvey, Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly

Here’s some driver comments on their qualifying efforts:

* Tony Kanaan (10th): “What a great effort as a team. A.J. and Larry (Foyt) put so much effort into this over the winter and gave us everything I’ve asked. They’ve spent every single dime to give us a great car. I told them today our pole was 10, so we’re sitting on the pole.”

* Matheus Leist (11th): “The car was pretty good since the beginning of the week. I’m so happy for the whole team. I love this place. Last year I won my first race in Indy Lights here, so let’s see what I can do in my first Indy 500 here.”

* Marco Andretti (12th): “I thought it was alright. I was chasing balance end to end. It kind of caught me out. … I’m excited about the race, that’s for sure. Yesterday, we wouldn’t have made the Fast Nine, so I just want to go forward and get it done.”

* Ryan Hunter-Reay (14th): “I was hoping for more but I think that’s the speed the car has in it. I had a good balance in the car. I’m looking forward to focusing on the race car tomorrow, and if you have a good race car, none of this qualifying matters.”

* Robert Wickens (18th): “We were able to do a 228 this morning comfortably, and then I go out and do a 226 (in qualifying) and didn’t change a thing. … It’s still cool to start it.”

* Carlos Munoz (21st): “I want this race, I’ve been so close for so many years. I love this race, everything about the 500. I think the most important thing is to have a good car for the race.”

* Jay Howard (28th): “Obviously, I’m just real happy to have the opportunity to go out there to give the car a good qualification effort. The pace is not there, we’re a little disappointed with the speed, but we’re in the race, that’s the most important thing and we’ll see what (the race) brings us.”

* Alexander Rossi (32nd): “It’s the mystery about this place, we don’t know yet. Certainly, that hasn’t been our performance here. We should have been 10th through 12th, but that’s what makes this place what it is. It’s a new challenge and new opportunity to show what we can do.”

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