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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Fernando Alonso will decide this summer whether to pursue F1 again

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Fernando Alonso said he will determine by this summer if he would consider a return to Formula One next season.

After announcing Tuesday that he will return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May with Arrow McLaren Racing SP, Alonso said “right now the Indy 500 will take all of my concentration” but left the door open for F1 in 2021.

“In my case, probably during the summer period, I’ll make a decision on 2021 if Formula One is still appealing to me,” Alonso told IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview (watch the video above). “The 2021 rules (in F1) are definitely a step forward, and hopefully things can be more mixed and not only three teams capable of winning races. So all this factors into play. I may consider that possibility.”

Alonso won consecutive Formula One championships in 2005-06 with Renault. He has 32 victories in an F1 career that started in 2001 and also includes stints at Ferrari and McLaren.

His last victory on the circuit was May 12, 2013 in Barcelona. He is winless in his most recent 110 starts, including the past 77 races with McLaren in 2015-18.

The Guardian recently reported that McLaren CEO Zak Brown said Alonso wouldn’t be returning to F1 with the team.

Alonso also told Diffey that returning to F1 from a two-season absence wouldn’t necessarily be linked to McLaren’s performance.

“I think they did well last year, and hopefully they make another step forward and close to the top three because they deserve it and are a fantastic team,” he said.

Though he is optimistic about more parity, Alonso said six-time champion Lewis Hamilton should be a favorite for the 2020 title based on preseason testing in which Mercedes turned heads with a new steering system.

“It seemed Mercedes is still quite competitive,” Alonso said. “They show enormous potential on the development side and on the progress from one year to next. Formula One is impossible to predict because many things happen in season.

“At the starting point, (Mercedes) are the favorites. When you have Lewis in the car and Mercedes with the potential they have, they have to be No. 1 probably.”