Whether or not Jeff Gordon can find another “Hail Mary” in his No. 24 Chevrolet, he’s off to the sort of start he needs to secure a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Gordon, however, didn’t put much distance between himself and his chief rival for one of the five remaining berths in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff. Kurt Busch qualified second and will take the green flag in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 from the outside of the front row.
The 33rd driver to make a qualifying attempt, as the shadows on the .75-mile track were starting to lengthen, Gordon circled the speedway in a track-record 20.674 seconds (130.599 mph), dislodging Busch from the top spot.
The driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet, who went out fifth under benefit of cloud cover, had matched the mark of 130.334 mph Matt Kenseth had set in April 2013.
Reigning series champion Brad Keselowski, in desperate need of a victory to keep his waning Chase hopes alive, qualified third at 130.158 mph. Clint Bowyer (130.020 mph) was fourth fastest, followed by Kenseth (129.864 mph).
The Coors Light pole award was Gordon�s first of the season, his sixth at Richmond and the 73rd of his career — third on the all-time list. Gordon’s qualifying run gave him at least one pole in 21 consecutive seasons, breaking a record he shared with NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson.
Gordon, who rallied from a lap down to edge Kyle Busch for the final Chase spot in last year’s regular-season finale at Richmond, is one of seven drivers who can secure a Chase spot with a victory. Busch can do the same.
“It’s not very often you get to break a record David Pearson set, so that�s really incredible,” Gordon said. “I’m pretty overwhelmed and blown away by that record itself and being able to accomplish that. I didn’t think it was going to happen this year. We just have not been qualifying well …
“The car was just driving well, and when I saw Kurt put that good lap up at the beginning, and then I saw that cloud go away, I was a little bit nervous whether we had enough. But on the first lap, the car stuck good, and I knew that I had a little bit more in me for the second lap, and it did all the things I wanted it to.”
The timing couldn’t have been better for Gordon, who is 11th in the Cup standings without a win this season and trails Busch in 10th by six points.
“That’s huge, to be able to do that at a crucial time, get that No. 1 pit stall (closest to the exit from pit road) and set ourselves up to do what we�re going to have to do here (Saturday),” Gordon said. “It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a hard fight, and I think we just got that little bit of confidence boost that we need.”
Adjustments to his car after practice helped Busch secure his eighth front-row starting position of the season, only one of which was a pole.
“We made a lot of changes, and it turned out to be a great lap,” Busch said. “I didn’t know if it would stick for the pole or not, and we ended up outside pole � It’s cool that we’re on the front row and hanging out up front with Gordon.”
If Gordon and Busch will battle for a Chase spot, so will Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman, who currently are in a heated struggle for the final wild card position. Truex holds the edge in the matchup by five points and backed that up with an 11th-place run in time trials. Newman qualified 24th.
Other drivers fighting for the remaining five Chase berths claimed the following starting spots: Jamie McMurray, seventh; Joey Logano, eighth; Greg Biffle, ninth; and Dale Earnhardt Jr., 14th. Earnhardt can lock up a Chase spot with a finish of 32nd or better without leading a lap
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