Johnson ready for 600th start

LONG POND — Jimmie Johnson had been plucked from NASCAR’s farm system to drive for owner Rick Hendrick with a resume so ordinary the team wondered if it made the right call on the California kid.

Until Johnson could join Hendrick Motorsports in late 2001, he plodded along for a second-tier team on the brink of closing and had flashed just the occasional spark of future stardom.

His early 2001 results hardly seemed worthy of a teammate about to be paired with NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

“The real concern was, had we made a good decision?” Hendrick mainstay Ken Howes said.

Howes, who has spent more than three decades at Hendrick Motorsports, had worked as a crew chief and was assigned to help the rookie driver with his learning curve at the elite Cup level. Johnson went out for a test session in one of Gordon’s Chevrolets and found the power in a car that suited his driving style and humbled the doubters in his camp.

“I came home and reported back and said, ‘Guys, stop worrying. It’s going to be OK,'” Howes said.

Just a few months later, Johnson was set for his Cup debut.

Johnson made his first career Cup start on Oct. 7, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and today he’ll earn one more slice of NASCAR history when he becomes the 30th driver to make 600 career starts.

Over the first 599 starts, he has blazed through a career that stamps him on the short list of all-time greats: Johnson has a record-tying seven championship, 83 wins, 35 poles, 224 top-five finishes and 348 top-10s. He will start 15th today.

Who knew this was possible in 2001?

“If anybody stood up at that time stood up and said, ‘Hey, this guy’s going to win seven championships,’ they’d probably send you to a drug test,” Howes said. “Your hope was that he had talent, he would gain experience and go on to become a good competitive driver. Win some races each year and kind of start there. Perhaps challenge for a championship.”

Big names DQ’d

LONG POND — Kevin Harvick’s bid for his first Pocono Raceway victory will start from the rear of the field.

Harvick had turned a lap of 177.750 mph on Saturday to win the pole and Kyle Busch joined him on the front row at Pocono but both cars had their qualifying sessions tossed out when they failed inspection.

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Suarez starts first at Pocono.

Wallace Jr. signs

LONG POND — Bubba and the King are sticking together.

Richard Petty Motorsports has signed rookie driver Darrell Wallace Jr. to a two-year contract extension through 2020. More commonly known by his childhood nickname “Bubba,” Wallace was second in the Daytona 500 for the highest finish for a black driver in the race.

“We like a little bit of what he’s doing so I think we’re going to hire him again for next year,” Petty said Saturday at Pocono Raceway.

Wallace has only one other top-10 finish in his first 20 races and hasn’t finished better than 14th over his last 13 races driving the No. 43 Chevrolet for RPM. He has led laps this season at Bristol, Pocono and Talladega Superspeedway.

Bell wins Xfinity race

AMES, Iowa — Christopher Bell moved back out front in overtime to win the NASCAR Xfinity series race Saturday at Iowa Speedway, becoming the first series regular with three straight victories since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999.

Coming off victories in Kentucky and New Hampshire, Bell led 94 of 257 laps. He broke a tie with Cup driver Kyle Larson for the series season victory lead with four.

Bell fell back to fourth in the first attempt at overtime before a red flag halted the race. He retook control in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 car, going low to beat Justin Allgaier –the winner of the June race at Iowa.

Busch equals mark

LONG POND — Kyle Busch held off Erik Jones down the stretch to win the NASCAR Trucks race Saturday at Pocono Raceway and tie the record for most career wins in series.

Busch won for the 51st time in Trucks and matched NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Ron Hornaday Jr. on the list. Busch also won for the 191st time over the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series.

Busch, the 2015 NASCAR Cup champion, is not scheduled to race in Trucks for his Kyle Busch Motorsports team again this season. He battled side-by-side with Jones during the last 10 laps. But Busch shook off Jones and pulled away over the final laps and won for the second time in the series this season.

Rossi wins pole

LEXINGTON, Ohio — Alexander Rossi won his third pole of the season Saturday, leading qualifying for the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner, denied Will Power his third pole at the Lexington, Ohio, course. His NAPA Auto Parts Honda had a one-lap speed of 125.677 mph over the 13-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course.

Hamilton out front

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Lewis Hamilton produced a brilliant last lap to take pole position for the Hungarian Grand Prix ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in difficult track conditions on Saturday.

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