It’s far too early to be thinking about Christmas, but Clint Bowyer was the Grinch whole stole the thunder from local favorite Jimmie Johnson during Saturday’s time trials at Auto Club Speedway.
With a stronger run off Turn 4 on his qualifying lap, Bowyer edged Johnson by .007 seconds to earn the pole position for Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The last driver to turn a lap, Johnson had the edge at the exit from Turn 4, but in a comparison with FOX Sports’ “ghost car” (representing Bowyer), the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion ran wider off the final corner and lost the top starting spot by roughly two feet.
“I was freaking out that the sun kept coming out,” said Bowyer, who claimed his first Busch Pole Award at Fontana, his first of the season and the fourth of his career. “You know the track’s building temperature. Everybody—you could see the data—kept getting looser and looser down in (Turns) 1 and 2.
“I knew coming to the green was important, tried to stay out high, try to get up through the gear box as good as you can, but that’s what it was. It stuck down there (in Turns 1 and 2), and everybody else had to kind of chase it up the track and lost speed and momentum.
“Then (Johnson), I’m thinking, ‘Man, if it comes down and I get beat by the last car on the race track, I’m going to freak out.’ I got a pole, baby! Looking forward to tomorrow. It’s going to be a hell of a race.”
Bowyer covered the two-mile distance in 40.086 seconds (179.614 mph) in his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
Johnson (179.582 mph) is facing his last race at Auto Club as a full-time driver, and his wife Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia send him on his way from the flag stand above the start/finish line.
“I wish we were one spot further ahead, and clearly, off of Turn 4 there, I ran a little more distance to the start/finish,” said Johnson, who grew up in El Cajon near San Diego. “Such a fine balance trying to understand how much you can open the wheel and let the engine run. Clearly, I did a little too much.
“That’s just the competitor in me. But a very special weekend for me, and I can’t wait to see my girls up in the flag stand waving that green flag.”
Alex Bowman, who led both Friday practices, qualified third, followed by Kurt Busch, as Chevrolets claimed the second, third and fourth starting spots for Sunday’s race. Kyle Busch was 17th in the fastest Toyota.
Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Martin Truex Jr., will start last (38th) on Sunday, having been barred from making a qualifying run after his No. 19 Camry failed inspection three times.
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola will line up fifth and sixth, respectively, for the third NASCAR Cup Series race of the season, followed by Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.