Full Cup qualifying results from Homestead-Miami Speedway
Hendrick Motorsport's Jeff Gordon will start from pole position for the third time in 2014, after topping the timesheets in the final round of qualifying at Homestead-Miami Speedway for Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 season finale.
"I think the way we are looking at this weekend is we want to close out the season the absolute best we can," said Gordon, who last week narrowly failed to make the final four competing for the 2014 championship at Homestead. "It was pretty nice to get that pole. That's awesome.
"I could feel the tyres going away and then we needed to move up [the race track]," he added. "When we saw some of those guys running fast laps a little bit higher up, I was looking forward to making that last lap. The guys made some great adjustments."
It's Gordon's 77th pole in 761 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races but the first time that he will lead the field to the start in 16 outings at Homestead. His success hands Hendrick Motorsports its 200th pole in Cup competition.
"To be the 200th pole for Hendrick Motorsports is really cool," said Gordon. "It has been a tremendous season. The #24 team has been incredible this year. We are disappointed that we aren't in this thing for the championship, but that's not going to stop us from trying to go out to win the pole and win the race."
Gordon set a time of 29.876s (180.747mph) on the 1.5-mile oval at the end of the top 12 pole shoot-out, managing to dislodge Kurt Busch from the top spot by 0.019s in the process. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver will start alongside Gordon on the front row when the green flag drops, and he was full of praise for his new crew chief for the invaluable input he had received.
"It was great to get a read off of Tony Gibson and all of the guys," said Busch. "That was our third [race] together and almost got the pole. We have got a really good read on one another. Now it's those little things within the car that you try to find and squeak out of it and Jeff Gordon laid down a really great lap to beat my lap. I felt like I got everything I could out of it and really happy with that effort."
The second row of the grid will also be taken up by former Chase contenders who have since been eliminated from the championship play-offs under the new Chase format being used for the first time this season, with Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth in third place lining up alongside Penske's Brad Keselowski in fourth. Keselowski had earlier set the fastest time of anyone in qualifying with a lap of 29.795s (181.238mph) to top the first round, which is a new track record for Homestead.
"I'm not happy with fourth," said Keselowski after being unable to reproduce that pace in the subsequent rounds. "But I'm happy with how strong we've been all day. We had decent runs. Our first qualifying run was really strong and then our second and third just weren't quite where we wanted to be. I'm not sure what we were missing there, but we were close."
But the real spotlight for Sunday's race is on the four drivers still in contention for the 2014 title, and it was SHR's Kevin Harvick who claimed first blood by coming top of that select group after clinching fifth place on the starting grid putting him alongside Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer
"This is going to be a race that you are going to go through some changing conditions," suggested Harvick. "Today was really about trying to get a solid starting spot, and we were able to do that with my Budweiser team. Just really proud of my guys. We had a really good day today. Just got to keep doing what we have to do and see where it all falls on Sunday."
The next-highest Chase contender is Denny Hamlin, who qualified in eighth place to join his JGR team mate Kyle Busch on the fourth row of the grid. Hamlin is one spot ahead of Penske's Joey Logano, who only made it into the final round by five thousandths of a second from MWR's Brian Vickers who will start from 13th place.
"We had an okay day today," said Logano. "I felt like we unloaded in race trim and had good speed in our car. It was pretty good and we kept committed to the bottom and trying to work down there and make that work for qualifying. We switched over to qualifying trim and the speed didn't transfer. We were trying to go just as fast as we did in race trim to do that in qualifying trim.
"We were third in the first round and that surprised the heck out of me," he admitted. "I was just hoping to make it through the first round. We were able to rebound off a car that didn't seem to be too fast in qualifying trim and qualified halfway decent there in ninth and will be able to race up from there. I feel my car was better in race trim than it was in qualifying trim for sure."
Failing to make it into the final round was the fourth and final Chase contender, Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman, who suffered his worst qualifying performance since the start of August when he started the summer race at Pocono Raceway from the same position. He went on to finish that race in eighth place.
"We were just a little bit tight getting in [to the corner] mostly," he explained. "A buddy of mine once said it isn't where you start, it is where you stop. We have got half of them beat to start ... We just struggled there a little bit. My first run was pretty good [but] the second run wasn't what we needed it to be.
"We missed it just a little bit on the balance," he added. "Then after than the tyres fall off so much that your next run is just a hope and a prayer. It's not where we want to be, but we do better fighting back."
Neither Newman nor his three title rivals necessarily have to win Sunday's race outright in order to clinch the title: whichever one of them finishes ahead of the others will be crowned 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion.
Of the four contenders, only Hamlin has won at Homestead in the past, the JGR driver finding his way to victory lane for the first time in 2009. He is also the defending race champion, having picked up a second win at Homestead 12 months ago at the end of last season.
If he can repeat that again this weekend then Hamlin will be crowned champion, but he'll have stiff competition from both Harvick and Logano to get there. And no one is assuming that Newman out of the running either, as the consistency he's shown over much of the Chase could yet prove invaluable if any misfortunes befall the others during the 400-mile, 267-lap race on Sunday afternoon.
Before then, the field will have two further 50-minute practice sessions on Saturday to get their cars fully dialled in to their race set-ups.
Full Cup qualifying results from Homestead-Miami Speedway
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