They accomplished that with faster laps during time trials, but Johnson made sure it wasn’t a defining moment before the final race of the Sprint Cup Series season.
Johnson delivered his own bit of salvo with a top-seven effort to keep either challenger from getting any pre-race momentum of pulling off one of the biggest racing upsets in NASCAR history.
Kenseth won the pole with a fast lap of 177.667 mph. He will start first in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Harvick was sixth, but Johnson was next in seventh. As long as Johnson keeps both within reach during Sunday’s race, he easily will win his sixth championship in the last eight years – especially since all he has to do is finish no worse than 23rd.
“Today was a successful day for us,” Kenseth said. “All we can do is control the 20. The car was way better than I was. We can’t control what they do. They [Johnson’s team] don’t usually run 23rd or 24th.”
Johnson was pleased with his qualifying effort.
“We’ll take this and go race on Sunday,” he said. “I have to run all 400 miles on Sunday. That’s the goal for this Lowe’s car.”
Kurt Busch will start second, followed by Joey Logano in third, Brad Keselowski in fourth and Denny Hamlin in fifth.
Kenseth wanted to put a lot of pressure on Johnson, perhaps to force him into an unexpected mistake, by leading a lot of laps and winning. The pole position was a good way to get it started.
“If [Johnson] makes a mistake, we need to be in position to take advantage of it,” Kenseth said.