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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James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.