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MOTOR RACING

Top NASCAR drivers well positioned at Fontana

Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya, 1-2-3 in the Chase for the Cup, qualify ninth, third and fourth, respectively, for Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway.

October 10, 2009|Jim Peltz

Mark Martin is leading NASCAR's Chase for the Cup playoff but Juan Pablo Montoya said Friday that he's keeping his eye on reigning champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson, who is trying to win a record fourth consecutive title, is second in the Chase playoff, 18 points behind Martin, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

And Montoya is third, 51 points behind Martin, as the series prepares for Sunday's Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway, the fourth race in the 10-race Chase.

Montoya said that if he can get through the middle races of the Chase "without getting yourself out of reach of Jimmie, you'll be fine."

And Montoya shadowed Johnson on Friday by qualifying fourth for Sunday's race, while Johnson qualified third in his No. 48 Chevrolet.

Denny Hamlin, who is 99 points behind Martin and sixth in the Chase, won the pole position with a lap of 183.870 on the two-mile Fontana oval.

David Reutimann had qualified second in a Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota at 183.108 mph. But his lap was disallowed when a post-qualifying inspection found that the pressurized gas in his rear shock absorbers exceeded allowed limits, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said.

Reutimann now will start at the rear of the 43-car field and everyone else moved up a spot.

That means Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing, who's eighth in the Chase and had initially qualified third, now starts second in the front row alongside Hamlin. Johnson and Montoya will start next to each other in the second row.

The pole-winning lap was "a big pickup for us," Hamlin said, because his No. 11 Toyota ran poorly in practice. But his Joe Gibbs Racing team made several adjustments after practice and "just came up with a great setup," he said.

Hamlin acknowledged that with Johnson only 18 points behind Martin, "everyone is kind of threatened by it." But, Hamlin said, "You've got to give Mark his due also, he's really stepped up over these last few weeks."

Montoya, a Colombia native who drives the No. 42 Chevy for the team of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, noted that he had "closed the gap a little" behind Martin in the Chase but that winning the title was "still far away." Martin qualified ninth.

"Hopefully we can stay away from trouble and have good race cars," said Montoya, a former Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula One racer who switched to stock cars in 2007.

Johnson won the Pepsi 500 last year and is tied with teammate Jeff Gordon for the most Cup wins at Auto Club Speedway with three. Gordon qualified 10th.

With the Pepsi 500 only the fourth race in the Chase, Johnson said he avoids fretting about the current standings.

"It is a good race for us in the Chase," Johnson said. "Hopefully my experience over the years [at Fontana] can help keep it simple and help my mind stay focused on the things that are really important."

Johnson also is focused on forgetting last week's Kansas race, in which the El Cajon native had the strongest car for much of the race but finished ninth.

"We have been a little frustrated with leading a lot of laps early and then, at the end, it slipping through our fingers for whatever reason," Johnson said. "That is what we have always been so good at . . . running our best at the end."

Gordon, meanwhile, said the Cup drivers are looking forward to racing at the Fontana track now that the Pepsi 500 has been moved from Labor Day weekend to mid-October, when "track temperature and everything is just perfect for the race cars."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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