By Amanda Vincent, NASCAR reporter
- Jeff Gordon takes first pole of 2011
- Hendrick Motorsports claims Talladega first two rows
- Jimmie Johnson will start in second position
- Martin and Earnhardt Jr. start from the second row
"I think it's going to be fun,
Hendrick Motorsports dominated NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying Saturday morning for Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. HMS claimed the first two rows on the starting grid, with Jeff Gordon taking the pole position, Jimmie Johnson the other front row starting spot and Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the second row.
"I think it's going to be fun," Gordon said.
Earnhardt Jr. went out fairly early in the qualifying session and claimed the provisional pole with a lap time of 53.87 seconds. He held the top spot for awhile before being knocked down a notch by Martin. After posting a lap of 53.86 seconds at an average speed of 177.807 mph, Martin held the provisional pole position until teammate Gordon became the only driver during Saturday's qualifying session to post an average speed of over 178 mph. Gordon's fastest lap had an average speed of 178.248 mph for a lap time of 53.72 seconds.
Johnson went out late among the locked in cars and posted a time of 53.84 seconds to claim the front row start alongside teammate and pole sitter Gordon.
In addition to Hendrick's top-four qualifying spots, Chevrolet also claimed the fifth and sixth starting spots, giving the manufacturer the complete first three rows. Paul Menard was fifth with a lap time of 53.89 seconds, and Landon Cassill claimed the sixth spot after turning in a time of 53.89 seconds.
David Ragan was the fastest Ford and non-Chevrolet, qualifying seventh with a lap time of 53.97 seconds.
"We made some drafting runs (in practice) and really didn't do any mock qualifying runs, so we didn't know what to expect, but that's a great lap for our UPS team," Ragan said.
Kurt Busch took eighth, posting a fastest lap of 53.99 seconds to claim the eighth spot. Three other drivers had lap times of 53.99 seconds -- Brian Vickers, Clint Bowyer and Trevor Bayne. Busch's lap was slightly faster than Vickers, with an average speed of 177.379 mph to Vickers 177.370 mph.
Bowyer and Bayne, on the other hand, had identical average speeds of 177.353 mph for their lap times of 53.99 seconds. Bayne has no Sprint Cup Series points -- as he's accumulating points in the NASCAR Nationwide Series -- so Bowyer got the 10th spot on the starting grid.
Sam Hornish Jr., who served as a substitute driver in place of Robby Gordon in practice on Friday, also qualified Gordon's No. 7 car. His time was disallowed, because NASCAR officials determined that the front end of the car was too low. The No. 7 car was locked into the field based on owner points, but the car's recorded time was 0.00 seconds, so Gordon will start from the rear of the field for the race on Sunday. He wasn't on hand to practice in qualify his car because of weather conditions that prohibited him from getting to the track in time, but Gordon is expected to race the car on Sunday.
Forty-six cars attempted qualifying runs, meaning three cars didn't make the starting grid for Sunday's race. Drivers who didn't make it into the race include Mike Skinner, Tony Raines and Michael McDowell. All three drivers actually posted lap times fast than Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott, but Labonte's No. 32 car was locked in based on car owner points and Elliott received the past champion's provisional.