Having announced his retirement from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of this season and making it clear that whatever else happens, this would definitely be his last time running in the Daytona 500, four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon bowed out of the event in perfect fashion by clinching the pole position for next week's season opener.
Full Daytona 500 qualifying times
Gordon took pole with a single third round qualifying effort of 44.711s (201.293mph) which put him 0.035s ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jimmie Johnson, who had earlier topped the times in the second round of the qualifying session but who was subsequently unable to quite repeat that form when it came to the top 12 pole shoot-out round.
It is Gordon's 78th Cup pole in 762 races, and his second for the Daytona 500 and the fourth time in total that he's secured the top spot in qualifying at Daytona International Speedway in 45 outings on the 2.5-mile tri-oval. His lap was the fifth-fastest Daytona 500 pole speed of all time, the fastest since Bill Elliott's record-setting lap in 1987 at 210.364 mph.
"That feels good. That's awesome. That's one of the most gratifying poles I've had, not just because it's my final Daytona. You have to play that chess match, and I played it really well," said Gordon.
Other than the front row, Sunday's qualifying session actually resolves remarkably little about how the field will line up on race day. Instead, the results of today's track activity merely set the line-up for the two Duel heat races that will be held on Thursday evening which will themselves fix the Daytona 500 grid.
The first 60-lap Duel will see Gordon lead those cars that ended qualifying on odd-numbered positions to the green flag, while Johnson will lead the even-numbered qualifiers to the start line for the second Duel. Gordon and Johnson can effectively bail out of the race after that and still keep their front row positions, but everyone else will be competing for their spot on the grid. Positions 3 through 32 will be determined by how drivers perform in the Duel, with positions 33-36 then going to the four fastest drivers in qualifying who have not already secured their spot via their Duel result, for example if they crash out early. Positions 37-42 are decided by car owner points (based on end of 2014 standings) and the final spot is a past champion's provisional.
See the starting line-ups for both Budweiser Duel races
While the various permutations are almost incalculable, it does mean that as well as Gordon and Johnson, the other drivers locked in to next weekend's race include Aric Almirola (who recorded the top speed of anyone on Sunday, a 202.370mph to top round 1), Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., while Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth all make it on owner points. Tony Stewart will be guaranteed a spot via the champion's provisional (he won at Daytona in 2011) if needed. Also clear are the identities of the six drivers who must now ensure they they race their way onto the grid during the week: Ryan Blaney, David Ragan, Michael Annett, Justin Marks, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Reed Sorenson all need to deliver in Thursday's Duel events.
That's a particular problem for Sorenson, whose week at Daytona might already effectively be over after he was involved in triggering a multi-car wreck at the start of qualifying. The accident left the #44 with extensive damage, and Team XTREME Racing subsequently confirmed that they have no back-up car available for Sorenson to switch to for the remainder of the Daytona event.
This was the first time that the Daytona 500 has used group qualifying rather than individual time trials. Despite various fine-tuning of rules and procedures to make the new format safer for superspeedways, the first run ended up something of a debacle as cars jockeyed for position coming off pit road as they sought a spot at the back of a group of fast-moving cars for optimal aerodynamic advantage. Sorenson was determined to hold on to his advantage by stopping Clint Bowyer getting by him, and the two collided with extensive damage to both cars. Also caught up in the accident were Denny Hamlin, JJ Yeley, Greg Biffle and Bobby Labonte, forcing NASCAR to throw a red flag to clean up the mess.
"First of all, I wasn't behind the #44," said Bowyer afterwards, who was absolutely furious with what had transpired. "He comes flying around, comes up on the apron, jumps in front of me, then runs over the #51 [Justin Allgaier], stacks us all up and I run into him.
"It's idiotic to be out here doing this anyway," Bowyer continued. "There's no sense in trying to put on some cute show for whatever the hell this is. Then you've got a guy out there in desperation doing this crap like this. There's no reason to be out here. These guys have spent six months working on these cars, busting their asses on these cars, to go out there and have some guy out of desperation do that crap."
Bowyer didn't stop there: "It ain't his fault. It's not. It's NASCAR's fault for putting us out here in the middle of this crap for nothing. We used to come down here and worry about who was going to sit on the front row and 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 at meetings for 45 minutes just to try and figure out what in the hell everyone is going to do, just so we can make the race," he concluded. "It's stupid. There's no sense in doing this."
It's the sort of outspoken criticism of the sport and its sanctioning body that NASCAR has traditionally taken a dim view of, and Bowyer might find himself in hot water as a result of voicing his opinions. By contrast, Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman picked his words carefully when he posted on Twitter: "Hard to stand behind NASCAR when nobody knows why we're doing this. Maybe I need to get sit down and educated about this."
Bowyer was by no means alone in his strident criticism, with Tony Stewart also taking to Twitter to voice his opinion: "Today use to be about showcasing the hard work from the teams over the winter. Now it a complete embarrassment for our series."
Stewart's team mate and current Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick echoed his boss's thoughts on the matter. "Sucks that 56 years of tradition at Daytona where fast cars ruled had ended," he posted on the social media network. He also told media at the track that "This qualifying is the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my whole life. It just doesn't work on the speedways."
A third member of the Stewart-Haas Racing line-up - and another former Cup champion - concurred. "We gotta find a better system," said Kurt Busch. "So much hard work goes into these cars, and it seems like it's a roulette system."
Sorenson was no happier with what had transpired, having been on the receiving end of Bowyer's rage immediately after the wreck. "He came up to the window. He was pretty upset. He has a right to be upset. I was trying to block. I was trying to stay in front of him to get that good lap. I didn't think he was up to me yet. Next thing I know I'm spinning.
"Guess I didn't think he was that far up," Sorenson suggested. "Trying to run that one good lap. The only way to run a good lap and the only way was to stay in front of him. You see blocking here all the time. It's part of this racing and now it's part of the qualifying.
"Normally in a race I probably wouldn't be that aggressive unless it's the last lap and you're trying to win the race," he added. "For us, trying to get in the race is that big a deal where I was treating it like the last lap of a race. That's how aggressive you have to be when you're not in the race. That's how this qualifying is — it forces you into that."
The red flag stopped the clock with 1:22s on the clock, but that left too little time for anyone to go back out and set a new time once the track went green again. The next first round group avoided repeating the errors of the first, and the second round also proceeded without incident although all 24 cars still in the running opted to wait on pit road for half of the allotted five minutes before finally coming out en masse
for two timed laps.
When it came to the final pole shoot-out round, the 12 contenders cut it even finer and came out with just over a minute to run for a single do-or-die effort before the chequered flag ended proceedings.
Teams and drivers now get a couple of days to cool off before returning to action for two further practice sessions on Wednesday and another on Thursday ahead of the Duel heat races. After that there will be two more practice sessions on Friday and one final practice on Saturday that will be dedicated to daytime race set-up.
The Daytona 500 itself gets the green flag shortly after 1pm local time on Sunday, February 22.
Full Daytona 500 qualifying times
Full starting line-ups for both Budweiser Duel races