Earnhardt and Gordon take front row at Richmond

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RICHMOND, VA. (AP) - It’s a Hendrick Motorsports front row at Richmond International Raceway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole for Saturday night’s “regular-season” finale, turning a lap of 127.023 mph in his Chevrolet to bump teammate Jeff Gordon from the top starting spot.

“I was as surprised as anybody,” said Earnhardt, who won the 11th pole of his career. “It feels good. I’ve not really been the best of qualifiers the last couple of years. We have a lot of improvements we’ve made this year. It feels good to get a pole.”

It’s the first pole for NASCAR’s most popular driver since the 2011 Daytona 500.

It came at the expense of Gordon, who is trying to race his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Gordon wound up second, and was pleased with the effort.

“Mission accomplished,” he said.

Gordon needs a strong race Saturday night and a little bit of help to earn one of the two wild-card berths in the 12-driver Chase field. Although eight drivers go into the race mathematically eligible for the final two spots in the Chase field, the talk has focused on a battle between Gordon and Kyle Busch for the last slot.

Busch, a four-time Richmond winner who picked up his only victory this season here in May, qualified 15th. But Gordon knew that’s not far enough in the pack to not worry about Busch.

“In my opinion, it’s really Kyle’s to lose,” Gordon said. “For us, it’s really nothing to lose, everything to gain.”

Earnhardt is already locked into the Chase and is racing only for bonus points Saturday night. The Chase field will be re-seeded after the race, with everyone but the two wild-card drivers starting their title hunt with three bonus points per victory.

Earnhardt has one win this season.

“I think everybody wants to get the win to kick the Chase off, and go into the Chase with a lot of confidence,” Earnhardt said.

The top seed will be Denny Hamlin, who has a series-best four wins this season and goes into his home track coming off consecutive victories the last two weeks. He qualified 11th and has said all week his focus Saturday night will be in helping Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch make the Chase.

But Hamlin could be joined by another driver in a tie for the top seed: five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and defending champion Tony Stewart are all tied with three wins this season. If one of them wins at Richmond, they’ll tie Hamlin with 12 bonus points to open the Chase.

Hamlin, a two-time winner here, isn’t ruling out stretching his lead with yet another victory. He’s coming off wins at Bristol and Atlanta.

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