Johnson wins pole at Martinsville


MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) – Jimmie Johnson showed that Hendrick Motorsports is ready to keep its domination at Martinsville Speedway going with a pole-winning run Friday.

Johnson toured the .538-mile oval at 96.736 mph in his Hendrick Chevrolet, barely beating Jamie McMurray for the top spot in Sunday’s Direct TV 500 Nextel Cup race.

McMurray circled NASCAR’s shortest track in his Ford at 96.696. Tony Stewart, the track record-holder at a speed of 98.083, was third, this time at 96.632.

The pole is the ninth of Johnson’s career and the first for Hendrick this season, and it came at the track where Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, won both races in 2005.

Gordon, a seven-time winner at Martinsville, qualified eighth at 96.288. For Johnson, a fresh start was eagerly anticipated. He finished 30th at Bristol Motor Speedway last Sunday, and fell from first to third in the Nextel Cup standings. “It’s nice to get back to the track and perform well,” he said, especially since his qualifying effort earned him the chance to pick the first stall on pit road.

“In some ways, I think pit road is more treacherous here than anywhere else, and having that first pit pick – it’s the biggest advantage, in my opinion,” he said. Martinsville’s pit road is not only narrow, but bends sharply at each end.

McMurray, like Stewart, was relieved to perform to his car’s capabilities.

“I think it’s the hardest place to qualify,” McMurray said. “You can have a good car, but it’s so easy to lock the front brakes up or just overdrive the corner, so it’s one of those places you can certainly be in the top five in practice and qualify 20th.

Stewart gave himself only one chance, locking up the brakes when he went too deeply into the corner on his second lap. But he’d already posted his blistering circuit.

“It’s tough to get the entry and exit right,” said Stewart, who once suggested turning the track into a bass fishing pond, but now has three poles and a victory here.

“This is a much tougher track than people give it credit for,” he said. The top 10 also includes the Dodges of Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne in fourth and fifth, Sterling Marlin in a Chevrolet, Virginia native Elliott Sadler in a Ford, Gordon, the Dodge of Bristol winner Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle in a Ford.

Points leader Matt Kenseth, who frequently struggles here, will start 16th.

AP-ES-03-31-06 1926EST