This is Gordon's final full-time season in NASCAR, but he's not finished yet.
Daytona Beach, Fla. - Jeff Gordon raced to the pole position for next week’s Daytona 500 in an action-packed and controversial “knock-out” qualifying session at the Daytona International Speedway on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Running in the back of a fast pack with time running out, Gordon’s speed of 201.293 miles per hour sewed up the coveted Daytona 500 pole, which he will get to enjoy for an entire week.
Running in his final Daytona 500, Gordon gained his fourth pole at Daytona and the 78th of his storied career. Also, he became the first driver to exceed the 200-mph mark in 28 years.
“This pole is huge for many reasons,” Gordon said. “This is one I have been stressing out for a while. This format is crazy and chaotic and can become extremely rewarding when you have a day like we had. This year with the new qualifying format the driver gets to play a role and with a fast race car and a lot of coordination with my spotter, my crew chief and myself, that was pretty nerve-wracking.
“I didn’t think we were going to wait that long (to go out), as I wanted to go sooner. But it was pretty gratifying as a total team effort and to pull off a 1-2 for Hendrick Motorsports on the front row feels good.
“This is one of the most gratifying poles here at Daytona but not because it is my final Daytona 500 but because you have to play it out and try to play that chess match, and we played it pretty well. I went off pit road pretty hard with Jimmie (Johnson) behind me and I saw No. 20 (Matt Kenseth) and No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) checking up and I thought I wanted to be behind them, and it worked out perfectly when I got a surge on that last lap and I thought it might be enough. This is pretty awesome to pull it off today.”
Joining Gordon on the front row is his teammate Jimmie Johnson with a speed of 201.135 mph. He also took his fourth Daytona 500 front-row starting spot.
Sitting on pit road with time-running out and no one else running, Johnson thought his time from Round Two might put him on the pole. “We had some cues and timing marks where we thought we had to leave pit road and that time came and went, so I thought I might have the pole,” he commented.
“As were making our lap, we got up to speed and covered so much territory, I thought most (cars) were going to make it and I might not make it. In restrictor-plate racing, we knew what the risks were and in order to get a pole, you have to take a big chance and that could be first or 12th. We were willing to take that risk to try to gamble to be there.
“It is nice to know we have a great starting point for the Daytona 500, and we will enjoy the week more so on an emotional level for all our folks at Hendrick Motorsports. The only way the drivers can thank everyone is to go out there and stand on it. We did just that today.”
The pair gave Hendrick Motorsports its fourth front-row sweep for the Daytona 500.
The best of the rest
In addition to Gordon and Johnson, the next fastest drivers were Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Ty and Austin Dillon¸ Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr.
For the first time this year, knock-out qualifying replaced the single-car format, much to the displeasure of many drivers. And it took only some three minutes into the first round for their concerns to be borne out.
Running in a tight-pack, Reed Sorenson, who needed to qualify on time, got together with Clint Bowyer and Justin Allgaier, setting off a chain reaction that involved Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle and Michael Annett.
Sorenson shouldered blame for trying to block Bowyer.
Said Sorenson, “I didn’t want it to end like this, as we don’t have a back-up car. As you can see, I was trying to block Bowyer as I was trying to do everything I could to stay up there. I wasn’t trying to wreck anybody. It is just a product of this type of qualifying.”
A highly upset Bowyer said, “He (Sorenson) jumped in front of me and then hits Justin Allgaier and stacks us all up. To be out there doing this makes no sense, trying to put on a cute show and then you got a guy out there in desperation. We have worked for months on these cars and then have some guy go out there and do this, it is not his fault. We used to come down here and worry about who is going to sit on the pole, but now we have to worry about how a “start and park” is going to knock us out of the Daytona 500. There is no sense in doing this.”
Leading the way in round 1 was Aric Almirola and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at 202.370 and 202.334 mph, respectively.
Johnson led the pack in round 2 at 201.925 mph. He was trailed by Hamlin, McMurray, Gordon, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Edwards, Earnhardt, Truex and Kahne.
There will be no on-track action on Monday and Tuesday with the Sprint Cup Series set to practice next on Wednesday afternoon, a day prior to Thursday night’s Duel events.
Those locked in
The four drivers who locked themselves into the race on speed were Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Aric Almirola, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Via their front-row starting positions, Gordon and Johnson are also locked in. The top six from the last year's championship standings (not already locked in) are also guaranteed a spot, that being Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Matt Kenseth.
Tony Stewart is currently the first man in line for the champion's provisional. After him, it would be Kurt Busch, then Bobby Labonte.
Nick DeGroot contributed to this story