Hendrick cars pack Talladega front row

TALLADEGA, Ala. — For the first time since Dan Wheldon’s fatal accident, the focus was back on the racetrack.

Hendrick Motorsports proved Saturday it has the best superspeedway program in NASCAR with a sweep of the front row in qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway.

Mark Martin won the pole with a lap of 181.367 mph, a tick faster than the 181.360 posted by five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick Motorsports has won the pole at all four superspeedway races this season and swept the front row in all but one.

“Our qualifying on (restrictor) plate tracks this season has just been amazing,” Johnson said.

Martin began his post-qualifying news conference on a somber note, encouraging fans to visit the website dedicated to Dan Wheldon. Today’s race at Talladega is the first major motor sports event since the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed in the IndyCar season finale last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The first of two memorials for Wheldon was Saturday, and the second will be today in Indianapolis about the same time the NASCAR race will end. NASCAR is honoring Wheldon with decals on its cars that display the Lionheart Knight image that Wheldon affixed to the back of his helmets, as well as a moment of silence before the race.

When the green flag drops, though, the drivers will have pushed Wheldon from their minds to focus on racing on NASCAR’s fastest and biggest track. There’s a championship on the line, too, and Johnson has a huge hole to climb from to have a shot at winning a sixth consecutive title.

A nasty accident Oct. 15 at Charlotte dropped Johnson from third to eighth in the Chase standings, and he has five races remaining to erase a 35-point deficit. But, Johnson won here in April, when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed him to the victory.

As Johnson made his victory lap that afternoon, his crew chief thanked Earnhardt over the team radio.

“Dale, thank you, man,” Chad Knaus said over the radio. “Next one is on us, brother.”

But the stakes are too high now for Johnson to simply pay back the favor: Earnhardt is ninth in the standings.

“I remember Chad saying it, and believe me, the Junior Nation has not forgotten,” Johnson said. “We worked yesterday, and we’ll just have to see how things unfold in the race and where we feel we’re the fastest. If we can’t win the race, we certainly want him to.”

It’s going to be wide open, though, as drivers have spent the first two days at Talladega working on their strategy and picking drafting partners.

The Johnson-Earnhardt duo in April beat Richard Childress Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick in the push to the finish line. Bowyer, who settled for a close second to Johnson, will start today’s race third.

Bowyer was followed in qualifying by Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Jr.

Paul Menard qualified seventh, followed by David Ragan, Sprint Cup Series points leader Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman.

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