By JENNA FRYER
INDIANAPOLIS — The Rocket Man got his fuel back.
Ryan Newman snatched the pole away from Jimmie Johnson with a blistering lap of 187.531 mph around Indianapolis Motor Speedway to set a track record for NASCAR races at the Brickyard.
Newman was the last of the 45 drivers to make a qualifying attempt Saturday as Johnson’s No. 48 was atop the scoring tower for well over an hour with a lap of 187.438. Driver after driver had failed to knock Johnson from the pole, and the four-time Brickyard winner watched and waited to see if Newman could get the job done.
Newman, an Indiana native, pulled it off as Johnson smiled his approval.
“You can’t count Ryan out, and he put up a whale of a lap,” Johnson said.
Added team co-owner Tony Stewart, “They don’t call him ‘Rocket Man’ for no reason. He had an awesome lap.”
It’s the 50th pole for Newman, who established himself as an elite qualifier with six poles his rookie season. He set a NASCAR record with 11 poles in 2003, and won at least one pole a year for 11 seasons.
But he’d been in a drought of late, and Newman’s last pole was late in the 2011 season.
“I just am ecstatic. It’s awesome because it’s my 50th. It’s awesome because it’s Indy, and it’s a track record on top of that, so it’s like a double triple bonus,” Newman said.
The normally stoic Newman admitted he got emotional on the backstretch of his cool-down lap.
“It’s more special to me because it’s the Brickyard, because it’s Indy, because of the history of auto racing at this facility,” he said. “So many drivers who are my heroes, so many drivers I’ve admired, so many drivers that have worked so hard in their career to get to here on this day, to be the fastest one, that’s what’s the most special to me.”
The drought on poles had weighed on Newman over the last year.
“It’s been bothering me for a long time,” he said. “I feel like I’m a driver that can still hit his marks each and every lap and put it all together, and we didn’t win a pole last year. We were close at times.”
The 50th pole of his career is good enough for ninth on the career list, and it comes at a critical time for Newman. Stewart told Newman he’s not being re-signed for next season two weeks ago, and Newman is currently looking for a job for 2014.
“No hard feelings. They made a move, and that move makes me move, and there’s no hard feelings,” Newman said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Obviously this is a good step in publicity for me on the positive side, so we’ll see what we can do tomorrow.”
Carl Edwards qualified third at 187.157, and was already seated for the post-qualifying news conference when he watched on television as Newman knocked Johnson and Edwards down a notch.
“I felt really good — second is the worst,” Edwards said about qualifying third. “It’s the worst to qualify second, and nobody wants anybody to go through what Jimmie just had to go through. We all don’t feel too bad for Jimmie, but that was pretty dramatic. I didn’t really expect that.”
Johnson, who today will try to win his fifth Brickyard and tie Formula One’s Michael Schumacher as the winningest driver at Indy, said his lap wasn’t perfect.
“I did miss Turn 2 a little bit on my turning point, and felt like I made that mistake,” Johnson said. “But Ryan hit all four corners great and got it done. Happy for him. It’s got to be a big day for him, being a hometown boy and all. Very happy for Ryan and very happy for our team.”
Denny Hamlin qualified fourth and was followed by Stewart, a two-time Indy winner, as Stewart-Haas Racing has two cars starting in the top five.
Kurt Busch was sixth and followed by Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya, four-time Indy winner Jeff Gordon and Marcos Ambrose.