Denny Hamlin will start Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at… (Nigel Kinrade / Associated…)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was feeling pressure even before the NASCAR driver's first practice Friday at Auto Club Speedway.
"I'm just worried about qualifying," Earnhardt said of trying to earn an up-front spot for his No. 88 Chevrolet in Sunday's Auto Club 400. "I want to qualify well. If you don't start up front, it's really hard to get there."
But the popular Sprint Cup Series driver didn't quite get his wish. After practice, he qualified 14th in the 43-car field with a lap of 184.530 mph.
Denny Hamlin won the pole position with a lap of 186.403 mph in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and his teammate Kyle Busch was second at 185.534 mph.
Veteran Mark Martin qualified third, and current Cup points leader Greg Biffle was fourth.
Auto Club Speedway is a wide, two-mile oval where the cars reach 200 mph on the front straightaway and often get strung out during lengthy green-flag runs.
"I like this racetrack," Earnhardt said. "It's not hard to pass" when the cars are close together "because the track is really wide, but it's just very competitive" to get in a position to pass, he said.
"If you qualify mid-pack, it's hard to get out of that," he said. "Even if you have a better car, you will end up running there all day long."
Earnhardt has gone more than three years and 133 races without a victory, and he's never won in Fontana in 19 starts.
NASCAR president defends inspection, appeal
NASCAR President Mike Helton defended the inspectors who ruled that Jimmie Johnson's car violated the rules at Daytona even though an appellate officer this week reversed most of the penalties NASCAR levied against Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team.
"We defend our actions; we're proud of our inspectors," Helton said. But he said NASCAR also believes in its appeals process, "and we're ready to move on."
The inspectors found Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet had an unacceptable C-post — the bodywork that connects the roof to the rear quarter panel — before the Daytona 500 last month, which might have provided an aerodynamic edge.
Johnson was docked 25 championship points, and crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were suspended for six races, among other penalties.
But Hendrick appealed — mostly on grounds that the same car previously passed inspection — and the chief appellate officer, without explanation, Tuesday gave Johnson his points back and reversed the suspensions.
Johnson, the five-time champion, immediately jumped to 11th in the Cup standings, from 17th, and is now 36 points behind Biffle.
"Getting the 25 points back puts us right back there" in the title hunt, said Johnson, who qualified 10th for Sunday's race. "The distraction, if we were to lose Chad and Ron, would have been huge for our team."