Kyle Busch gets NASCAR pole; Jimmie Johnson escapes injury
AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) Jimmie Johnson escaped injury when his steering wheel came off and he crashed into the wall at full speed in NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying Friday.
Kyle Busch later won the pole for the race Sunday at Phoenix International Speedway.
Johnson was on his second lap in the final round on the mile oval when he couldnt turn and his car rammed into the second-turn wall. The right front of the Hendrick Motorsports' No. 48 car took the most damage and Johnson was able to climb out after the car slid onto the grass.
The six-time Cup champion was examined and released from the infield care center.
Johnson didn't explain the reason for the crash in media interviews, but later took to Twitter.
''About qualifying, the steering wheel came off,'' Johnson said. ''I know my interview was vague, but wanted to tell the team first. I'm thankful for soft walls.''
Johnson was helped by recent safety initiatives, including SAFER barriers and car improvements.
''We'll have to get to the bottom of it,'' Johnson said. ''Just a really hard impact to the outside wall. Thankful that we have SAFER barriers and soft walls. But very disappointed because we had such a fast race car.''
After the red flag to clean up the wreck, Busch won his 18th career pole with a lap of 138.387 mph. It's Busch's first pole at Phoenix since 2012.
''We were getting our butts smokes a few years ago,'' Busch said. ''When this place was repaved we obviously struggled really bad. But we've known to do a really a big push on this place because it's the second-to-last race in the Chase.''
Carl Edwards qualified second and Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin third, giving Toyota the top three spots for the race Sunday.
Kurt Busch was fourth. Johnson qualified fifth, but will need to go to a backup car and will start in the back.
Johnson teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won November's rain shortened race to end Kevin Harvick's four-race win streak at Phoenix, failed to advance past the first round and will start 26th.
The first round of qualifying including a bizarre red flag after Kasey Kahne's car began smoking near the dash while he was running second. The Hendrick driver said he tried to turn the car off and it kept running.
''I'm really confused,'' he said.
Kahne's car was towed to the garage. He earned the 24th spot, but will need a new engine and will start at the rear Sunday.
The driver who has dominated at Phoenix, didn't in qualifying. Harvick, who complained of a loose car in practice, qualified 18th at the mile tri-oval.
''They were off a little bit today,'' Busch said about Harvick.
Ty Dillon, filling in for the injured Tony Stewart, scraped the wall in the first round and will start 28th.
EVERYBODY IN: With only 39 entrants for a 40-car field for a third straight week, no one was sent home. Good news for rookie Ryan Blaney, who doesn't hold a guaranteed spot. Blaney didn't need the help, making the final round and qualifying 12th.
''You obviously wish to have more cars,'' Blaney said, ''but it's a strong field.''
Blaney finished sixth Sunday at Las Vegas.
WHAT TO EXPECT: Barring rain, a Harvick victory. Harvick has won five of the past six Phoenix races, with the lone blemish last year's shortened race. His seven Sprint Cup victories are a track record.
AGONY IN THE DESERT: Edwards starting on the front row is a nice way to bounce back. Edwards chided a reporter who asked if the disappointment from his last race at Phoenix has stuck with him.
''I had a dog that died when I was a kid and that really stuck with me, too,'' Edwards said.
When NASCAR ended November's race early, Edwards finished five points behind Martin Truex Jr. for the final of four spots to race for the Sprint Cup title.
SUSPENSION: Truex Jr. qualified eighth with Todd Berrier serving as crew chief. Cole Pearn is serving a one-race suspension for Furniture Row Racing's use of illegal roof flaps at Atlanta.
HOME RACE: Michael McDowell, from nearby Glendale, will start 33rd.