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July 12. 2013 8:46PM

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: Keselowski wins NHMS Sprint Cup pole; points leader Johnson penalized


NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski (2) reacts after winning the pole position in qualifying for the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

LOUDON -- Jimmie Johnson went from second place to last place. In a hurry.

The five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion owns a healthy lead in the point standings again this year, but will have his work cut out for him on Sunday in the Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He will start 43rd in the race.

Johnson turned in a qualifying time that was second to Brad Keselowski's record run late on Friday afternoon. But shortly after he appeared at a press conference to talk about qualifying, NASCAR announced that his time had been disallowed after his car had failed its post-qualifying inspection.

The skirt on the front end of the car was low on both sides, NASCAR said, and Johnson will start at the rear of the 43-car field on Sunday.

“The way the heights are, there’s not a lot of room for error and we just had a little error,” said Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, after the sanction was announced.

Knaus said the team is ready to tackle starting from the rear. Drivers generally talk about the difficulty of passing at New Hampshire with its relatively flat corners, but the crew chief didn’t sound concerned about that.

“It’s going to hurt us tremendously in pit selection,” Knaus said. “But the good thing about Loudon is, if you’ve got a good race car, you can pass, so we’re really looking forward to that. It’s actually a funny race and the way the ebb and the flow goes, the guys in the back typically get an opportunity to get to the front. You can make up ground with pit strategy. If nothing else, we can make it exciting.”

Johnson’s Lowe’s Chevrolet had trouble in inspection before qualifying and that made him late to the track. It failed because of an assembly problem, Knaus said.

Keselowski led a pack of nine drivers, not counting Johnson, who turned in a lap faster than the previous track qualifying mark.

Keselowski now owns the record with his time of 28.022 seconds and 135.922 miles per hour.

He’ll try to match what Ryan Newman did when he set the previous record of 135.232 mph in July of 2011. Newman won that race from the pole.Kurt Busch moved up to the second qualifying spot when Johnson dropped down and will start beside Keselowski.

The defending Sprint Cup champion, Keselowski needs a good finish to improve his standing as the Chase for the Sprint Cup approaches.

Eight races, beginning Sunday at New Hampshire, remain before the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 15.

The top 10 drivers in points, and two wildcard drivers based on wins, qualify for the Chase.

Keselowski sits just outside the Chase this morning.

He is in 13th in the standings, two points out of 12th and 11 points behind Tony Stewart in 10th.

“I feel our race team is ready to hit its stride,” Keselowski said. “We’ve been close the last few weeks and have had the speed and didn’t get the job done. Different scenarios bit us. Those things come and go and I feel like they’ve went and I feel like this is our time.”

Keselowski was third in the standings after eight races, but slipped with only one top-10 finish in the last 10. He was outside the top 10 only once in the first eight races of the season.

Four of the top six starters on Sunday are in the top 10 in points.Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is fifth in points, qualified third and Kyle Busch, who is seventh, was fourth. Jeff Gordon (14th in points) was fifth and Carl Edwards (third) was sixth. Denny Hamlin (26th), Kasey Kahne (12th), Jeff Burton (21st) and Juan Pablo Montoya (23rd) fill out the top 10 in the starting grid.

Johnson will be chasing them all.

“We’ll have to be aggressive,” said Knaus, his crew chief. “The thing about it is, it’s a very short race. Three hundred laps. You’ve got to get in there and get going and be aggressive. I look forward to the challenge. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” .

Allenlessels@unionleader.com On Twitter: @allenlessels


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