DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson outsmarted the field Sunday to sweep the front row for the Daytona 500, with Gordon earning the pole in what will be his final start in “The Great American Race.”
Gordon announced last month this will be his final full-time season as driver of the famed No. 24 Chevrolet, and he’s been adamant next Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 will be the last of his storied career. The four-time NASCAR champion is a three-time Daytona 500 winner.
“That feels good. That’s awesome,” Gordon said.
Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson locked down the front row in Sunday’s qualifying session, which was done in knockout rounds for the first time in 57 years.
The qualifying was blasted by most of the drivers.
Clint Bowyer called it a “cute show” after he wrecked in the first round. Reigning champion Kevin Harvick grumbled Daytona’s tradition had been ruined, while three-time champion Tony Stewart called it “a complete embarrassment for our series.”
The group qualifying was messy from the very start, when the first 25 drivers all jockeyed for position before they even left pit road. Some even drove through the grass to get through the traffic jam.
It stuck Bowyer behind Reed Sorenson, a driver who needed a big run Sunday to lock himself into the field.
So Sorenson tried to block Bowyer in a desperation attempt to advance through the knockout rounds and it triggered a five-car pileup. Both Bowyer and Sorenson ended up with a pair of wrecked Toyotas. It was Sorenson’s only car of Speedweeks, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to locate another car before Thursday’s qualifying races.
“I didn’t mean to wreck anybody or anything like that,” Sorenson said. “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.”
Bowyer, who angrily gestured inside Sorenson’s window after the wreck, was seething. He placed the blame squarely on NASCAR for scrapping single-car qualifying runs in favor of the more exciting knockout rounds.
“It’s NASCAR’s fault for putting us out in the middle of this crap for nothing,” Bowyer fumed. “We used to come down here and worry about who would sit on the front row in 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 in the hell everybody is going to do just so we can make the race. It’s stupid.”
The knockout rounds whittled it down to one final 12-car session in which the drivers had five minutes to make a qualifying run.
Only all 12 idled on pit road, as none of them wanted to be first out on the track.
Finally, Martin Truex Jr. pulled onto the track and the others slowly followed. It was apparent as they raced to cross the starting line in the allotted time that they’d all been timing their move to make their lap just under the wire.
It worked to perfection for Gordon and Johnson, who gave Hendrick Motorsports a sweep of the front row for the fourth time in history.
“This is one of the more gratifying poles here at Daytona that I’ve ever had — not just because it’s my final Daytona 500, but because you’ve got to try and plan it out and play that chess match and play it really, really well,” Gordon said.
Gordon called the three rounds “nerve-racking” and said it wasn’t his plan to sit that long on pit road.
“I really wanted to go sooner than that,” he said.
Also locking themselves into the field were Aric Almirola, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards. It was a huge relief for Edwards, who moved to Joe Gibbs Racing in the offseason, and the team’s new fourth car was not guaranteed a spot in the field.
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