DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Report by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images North America photo —
Hollywood couldn’t write this script.
As cars waited until the last possible second to roll out in the final round of Sunday’s group qualifying for the 57th annual Daytona 500, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson brought up the rear of a nine-car drafting train and crossed the line with one second left on the clock — leaving them a single, perfect lap to try and find some magic.
It paid off with the front row for next Sunday’s running of the Great American Race.
Gordon, in what he says is his final attempt at the Daytona 500, got just enough of a suck from the line of cars ahead of him to post a lap of 201.293 mph (44.711 seconds), good enough to top all twelve cars who advanced to the third and final round of Coors Light Pole Qualifying and giving the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion his second career pole (1999) for NASCAR’s most prestigious event.
“That was nerve-wracking,” Gordon laughed following qualifying. “This is definitely huge for many reasons, though. This is one I’ve been stressing about for a while. This format is crazy and chaotic. (But) it can be extremely rewarding when you have a day like we had.”
The pole is the 78th Coors Light Pole Award of Gordon’s career, third all-time on NASCAR’s career list. Gordon’s pole speed is the fifth-fastest Daytona 500 pole speed ever, and the fastest since Bill Elliott’s all-time Daytona track record of 210.364 mph, set in 1987.
“I thought Jimmie had the best chance, to be honest,” Gordon admitted. “I thought I had as equal or maybe not quite as good a chance. It just happened to work out that he closed up on me, gave me a little bit of a push. Those guys got a little bit of a tow. I felt like I was really good. That was by hundredths of a second.”
“You don’t know that, but when they said ‘pole’, it was very exciting.”
Johnson, who was at the tail of the drafting train in the final moments of qualifying, came up three one-hundredths of a second shy of his third career 500 pole (201.135; 44.746), but sits on the front row of the Great American Race for the fourth time in his career and gives car owner Rick Hendrick his fourth career “sweep” of the front row for the 500.
“I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it around in time to get our lap, to be honest; once we did, I’m sitting here thinking ‘Hey, this is alright, I’m at the back of the train and I’ll still get the pole’,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately we came up just a tiny bit short, but its still a great day for Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet and I get to start alongside my teammate next Sunday.”
The remainder of the qualifying times will set the starting lineups for Thursday night’s Budweiser Duels at Daytona (7 p.m. Eastern on FOX Sports 1).
Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Ty Dillon, Austin Dillon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top twelve cars who advanced to the final qualifying round. They will start second through sixth (alternating respectively) in their Budweiser Duels.
Johnson topped the second round of qualifying with a top speed of 201.925 mph. Aric Almirola was the overall fastest in round one qualifying (Group B; 202.370 mph), while Hamlin topped Group A in the opening round with a speed of 199.840 mph.
Of note — Almirola (202.370 mph), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (202.334), Edwards (202.315) and McMurray (202.247) have the four fastest overall speeds from the three rounds of qualifying (all set during round one) and are therefore locked in to at least positions 33-36 on the grid, no matter what happens in their qualifying race.
A vicious crash in Round One Group A brought that session to an early end, when Clint Bowyer tried to duck low and get around Reed Sorenson and came up into the No. 44 Golden Corral Chevrolet, sending both cars hard into the wall. Bobby Labonte’s No. 32 Ford piled in and rear-ended Bowyer’s Toyota, causing massive damage to both entries.
Both Labonte and J.J. Yeley were fast enough overall to advance to round two, but due to the damage sustained in the accident, neither car attempted a lap in second round qualifying.
Bowyer’s crash is the second for the Emporia, Kansas native in two days and leaves him with a lot of uncertainty heading into Thursday’s qualifying races. Many teams use their Sprint Unlimited car as their backup car for the Daytona 500, but Bowyer’s Unlimited machine was trashed in a multi-car melee on Saturday night.
“”I wasn’t behind the 44 (Sorenson). He came flying around, came up on the apron, jumped in front of me and then ran into the 51 (Justin Allgaier) and stacked us all up before I ran into him,” Bowyer said of what happened from his point of view. “It’s idiotic o be out here doing this anyway. There’s no sense in being able to try and put on some cute show or whatever the hell this is. Then you have a guy out there doing this in desperation.”
“We used to come down here and worry about who would sit on the pole for the biggest race of the year. Now all we do is come down here and worry about how a start-and-park like this — out of desperation — is going to knock us out of the Daytona 500. We’ve been in meetings for 45 minutes just trying to figure out what everybody is going to do just so we can make the race. It’s stupid.”
Sorenson said on the FOX Sports broadcast his Team Xtreme Racing squad does not have a backup car for Thursday’s Duels and say they will have to “scramble” to try and put something together.
“I have no idea (what we’re going to do),” Sorenson said. “We’ll have to reevaluate and see.”
“I was just trying to block,” Sorenson added of his move to try and get a fast lap. “That’s what got Matt Kenseth to win last night. I was doing everything I could to stay in front of Clint. Pretty obvious what I was trying to do. I didn’t mean to wreck anybody or anything like that. (It’s) just a product of this qualifying, trying to get that one lap. I didn’t want it to end that way, that’s for sure. I apologize to all the guys. Try to get a car here and try to get in the race on Thursday.”
With qualifying for the front row complete, NASCAR’s best and brightest now turn their focus to their final opportunity to make the Great American Race, the Budweiser Duels. The 150-mile qualifying races will take the green flag Thursday night under the lights, beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern time on FOX Sports 1 and the Motor Racing Network.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the race track on Wednesday, Feb. 18 for two 40-minute practice sessions in preparation for the Budweiser Duels, beginning at 2 p.m. local time.