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Johnson earns the pole at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson couldn't have asked for a better start to the weekend.

Johnson turned a lap at 97.598 mph to win the pole for Sunday's Tums 500 at Martinsville Speedway, his third pole of the season and 28th of his career.

The first choice of pit stalls will be helpful for Johnson. Even more of a potential help was the poor qualifying effort by Sprint Cup Series points leader Brad Keselowski, who will start 32nd.

Keselowski leads Johnson by seven points with four races remaining.

"We just hit it today - from my standpoint and the car's standpoint," Johnson said. "A few thousandths of a second can make the difference of several spots.

"In qualifying trim you drive the car as hard as you can. When you get into race trim, you can't run the brakes that hard. It's a tough compromise."

Johnson said he can't expect Keselowski to have a bad day even with their difficult starting position.

"It can get pretty cut-throat back there in the back," Johnson said. "I would never count them out. The competition has been too good this season to think otherwise. They looked pretty good in race trim."

Brian Vickers qualified second, Kyle Busch third, Jeff Burton fourth and Denny Hamlin fifth. Hamlin is third in the series standings, 13 points behind Johnson.

Vickers will make his eighth and final start of the season — but not his career — in Michael Waltrip Racing's No. 55 Toyota today.

The No. 55 team, which also features drivers Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip, is 14th in the series owners' points. In seven starts, Vickers has three top-five and four top-10 finishes.

"This is my last race of 2012 with these guys. I can't thank the whole MWR organization enough," Vickers said. "They are truly an awesome bunch to work with. They have been a blast to run these races with."

On Friday, MWR announced Vickers, Martin and Waltrip would again share the No. 55 next season. Martin will run in 26 races including the preseason Shootout and the NASCAR All-Star Race. Waltrip will do three races and Vickers will do nine.

"We made a lot of changes before the season started in 2012 and one of the smartest ones we made was bringing Mark Martin on board," Waltrip said.