Johnson easily wins pole at Richmond; Earnhardt 20th


Jimmie Johnson looks ready for NASCAR's playoffs.

In the last race before the Nextel Cup Series Chase for the championship starts, Johnson posted a qualifying lap that blew away the field at Richmond International Raceway. His speed was 126.296 mph; No. 2 Jeff Gordon qualified at 125.342 mph.

"I figured out how to drive this track when we were here in the spring," said Johnson, who outran Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Busch to win here in the spring. Busch qualified third Friday, giving Hendrick the top three spots in the field.

Gordon said it was clear early that Johnson had done something special. He was just the second car to make his run, and typically speeds get better as darkness falls.

Not this time.

Before making his laps, Gordon said he looked at what had happened so far and thought, "He must have put a really good lap down because nobody was close to him."

That includes Earnhardt, who will start 20th &

behind both of the drivers he can still knock out of the Chase. No. 11 Kurt Busch will start 14th, No. 12 Kevin Harvick 13th.

If Earnhardt wins the Chevy 400 on Saturday night and leads the most laps for the biggest possible points haul, Kurt Busch needs to finish 36th or better to clinch a spot in the Chase, and Harvick needs to finish 32nd or better to guarantee his spot.

With a series-leading five victories, Johnson would be the top seed if the playoff were to start today. Each victory gives a driver 10 bonus points in the Chase; Gordon is second with four wins. Johnson said he'll be looking to extend his advantage in the race.

With a chance to win at the end, "I'll be extremely aggressive," he said. "I have nothing to hold back for. If I'm running 15th, there's no sense in going out there and risking getting somebody really mad at me and having to do all kinds of apologizing."

The starting order will also have Ryan Newman fourth as the first Dodge off the line, Denny Hamlin fifth in another Chevrolet and Carl Edwards sixth in a Ford.

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