CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson hopes he's on the verge of turning around a disappointing season.
The six-time Sprint Cup champion won the pole Thursday night for the Coca-Cola 600, turning a lap at 194.911 mph at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the third round of NASCAR's knockout qualifying format.
It was the first pole of the year for Johnson, who has yet to win this season.
"It certainly shows that we're going to be strong this weekend," Johnson said. "I don't know that it sends the same message that winning two or three races will send. But I would love to rattle off two or three wins and have people fear the No. 48 as they have in the past. I don't think a pole position does that to the garage area, but you have to start somewhere."
Brad Keselowski qualified second for Sunday's race and will start on the front row for the seventh time this season. Kasey Kahne was third, followed by Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer.
Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon's struggles in practice runs carried over to qualifying. He didn't make it out of the first round and will start 27th, one spot behind last week's All-Star race winner, Jamie McMurray.
Johnson has won six Sprint Cup races at the Charlotte, twice from the pole.
He said he isn't concerned that he hasn't won (a win would secure him a spot in the Chase for the Championship). What has bothered him is the lack of consistency.
"We have been close to some wins and been pathetic at other tracks," he said.
Asked if he agrees with the notion that some detractors have enjoyed that he hasn't won, Johnson said: "I think there are some people getting satisfaction out of it. But if I win, I win too much. If I don't win, they say you aren't winning enough. So it doesn't matter what I do; I can't win."
Johnson was a nonfactor in the All-Star race last week at the track in his bid for a three-peat. He said his crew changed the setup in his car this week, using advice from teammate Kahne.
"We learned some things from last week," Johnson said.
Keselowski said he was bummed he got beat out for the pole again.
It was the sixth time this season he has qualified second.
"It's like kissing your sister," Keselowski said.
Patrick will start in the top 10 for the third straight week. She was fast throughout the qualifying session, with the top lap in the second round of 194.595.
But her lap in third round was more than one second slower.
Track temperatures reached 106 degrees at the start of qualifying but fell significantly as the sun set behind the grandstand. Speeds picked up dramatically.