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Brian Vickers puts Pemberton's car in the thick of Sunday's hunt by winning the California 500 pole: Really, because he'll have to start from the rear


A study in concentration: Brian Vickers (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   Brian Vickers, last Sunday's victim, this Friday's hero...for a while at least.
   Vickers set himself up as one of the men to watch in Sunday's California Auto Club 500 by edging Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray Friday for the pole for the season's second NASCAR event, and he used the occasion to consider and reconsider his controversial Daytona 500 incident with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
   Earnhardt crashed with Vickers at Daytona, a wreck that also took out Kyle Busch, who was dominating the season-opener. And Friday Earnhardt too debated the fine points of that encounter.
   "The best way to deal with any situation of controversy is to give them something else to talk about," Vickers said after his run at 183.439 mph around this flat two-mile oval in Ryan Pemberton's Toyota.
  However the celebration was short-lived, because a post-qualifying engine change will put him at the rear of the field for the start: "It's a shame we’ll be starting from the back. Having all of that traffic in front of us will be a challenge."
   Still, this is one of Vickers' best tracks, and that – plus Toyota's speed here – could be major factors Sunday.
   Carl Edwards won this race last spring, but Friday he was only 25th fastest. Earnhardt was even further off the pace, as was Jeff Burton.   
   And now Johnson, who won here last summer and ran second in the spring? "We were definitely disappointed with Daytona," he said in understatement. "We had speed in the car, but unfortunately the right-front tire was a big issue for us, and we really had to baby the car...so we could keep the wear within reason on the right-front.
   "We did run into some (tire) trouble and had to pit (earlier than usual). And the caution came out…and from that point we were trying to get back on the lead lap.
   "Once we finally did, the rain came, and we were the last car on the lead lap.
    "It's not the finish we wanted. We've put a lot of work into the 500…and the last couple of years that race has been a disappointment for us."
   Johnson can relate to the issues Earnhardt is going through at the moment, because Johnson a few years back drew the wrath of rivals for overly aggressive driving at Talladega.
   "Inside the garage area, and on the track, even though people may be frustrated, you're dealing with fractions of an inch that can make you look like a hero in some situations and in other situations tear up cars and have people mad at you," Johnson said.
   "But last weekend is last weekend.
    "It probably sticks around a little longer for Kyle, because he had such a good car and led so many laps. But that's plate racing.
    "It took longer (for Johnson himself) to win the fans back… much longer than it ever did to work inside the garage.
    "Stuff happens on track. Fortunately next week there's another race and you move on.
    "But it's a crazy sport -- fractions of an inch can sway the fans one way or the other."
   Certainly Vickers would agree. Not just from Sunday's incident but from that one at Talladega a while back, where Vickers, while trying to tuck in behind then-teammate Johnson in a last-lap pass on Earnhardt, triggered a big crash that took out Johnson and Earnhardt: "Yes, I did call both of those guys. I called them right after the race."
Talking helps defuse things sometimes. And when the guy on the other side of the debate is the sport's most popular, that just makes it tougher.
   "I don’t feel that I’m in a battle with Junior," Vickers says. "Maybe the fans see that, and the media create that... but there is not media battle that I am partaking in with Junior.
   " What has happened so far -- and I've been pleasantly surprised....I just assumed that, with Junior being the most popular person by far, that this was going to be my fault, no matter what happened. That everyone was going to side with him.
   "But the fans as a whole have been very supportive, and really judged the situation based on the actions, and not on anyone's popularity.
   "I don’t really read a lot of racing news, but there's been a lot of it sent to me this week. I saw polls where 90 percent of the fans said it was his fault, and 60 percent of them claim to be his fans... which has really been a shift in popular opinion from what I’ve seen in the past.
   "I've been pleasantly surprised.
   "There's been no battle between Junior and me. It was just one incident at one race.
   "It was last week, and we're at California now, and we're going to move on.
   "If I were to let every incident on the track bother me, I would be living one miserable life, that's for sure. There are 43 drivers out there with a lot of different agendas."



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