November 20, 2009

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) -- Jimmie Johnson will go for a record fourth consecutive NASCAR title from the pole in the season-ending Ford 400 this weekend.

Johnson turned a lap of 173.919 mph (279.88 kph) on Friday to top qualifying at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a big boost for the Hendrick Motorsports star as he tries to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four championships in a row.

Johnson goes into Sunday's Chase for the championship finale with a 108-point lead over teammate Mark Martin and needs only to finish 25th or better to win the title.

He's not looking for any driver to concede the title to him.

"Everybody needs to race because we're all here for a reason," Johnson said. "Everybody is trying to finish as strong as they can. It's not, let's not race. It's, let's race, but let's just give each other a little bit more room."

Scott Speed qualified second, Marcos Ambrose third, and Martin and Tony Stewart rounded out the top five.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who still has second place within reach, qualified 20th. Johnson, Martin and Gordon are trying to give Hendrick Motorsports a 1-2-3 finish in the season points standings.

"We did an awesome job today, and I feel that the start will go smoothly," Johnson said.

The start could be tricky for the unflappable Johnson. Speed and Ambrose are two drivers who haven't spent very much time on the track racing up front and around Johnson.

Johnson crashed on the third lap at Texas two races ago when he was hit by Sam Hornish -- another non-Chase contender. The wreck spoiled Johnson's shot at possibly clinching his unprecedented fourth straight championship last week.

Speed and Ambrose don't want to be the drivers who take out Johnson and forever are tagged as the ones who spoiled history.

"Certainly you don't want to be the guy that takes out the 48," Speed said. "That doesn't look good on your resume. You give him room, you race him as hard as you can."

Ambrose, who has only six top-10 starts this season, has a similar fear.

"You don't want to be the guy that does that to him," he said. "He's not going to do it on his own."

Johnson said the Texas wreck has made him somewhat apprehensive that a similar scare could happen again. He did not return to the track in that race until lap 115 in a rebuilt car. If he's knocked out early in Sunday's 400-mile (640-kilometer) event, his title hopes could be on the ropes and Martin could have some new life as he shoots for his first championship.

"I typically wouldn't be (worried), but with living through the Texas experience, I'm not taking anything for granted," Johnson said. "I'm happy to hear that both Marcos and Scott recognize what's going on. Those guys have both raced for championships. They know what it's like to get to that final race and you want that halo, you want that space."

Johnson won his fourth pole of the season in the No. 48 Chevrolet hours after it was announced he signed a contract extension to drive for Hendrick Motorsports through the 2015 season. He has 23 career poles in 291 races.

Johnson was so pumped at taking the pole he yelled, "Yes! Yes! Yes! Wow!" over his radio. Crew chief Chad Knaus told him, "God, I love you."

Max Papis, David Stremme, Dave Blaney, Joe Nemechek and Mike Skinner failed to qualify.

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