Hendrick Motorsports' Jeff Gordon captured pole position for this weekend's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, his second in 2015 after he also managed to start out in front for the season opener at Daytona two weeks ago.
While it was Gordon's 79th pole in 764 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, it was the first time that he'd managed the feat at this 1.5-mile high-banked intermediate oval in his 23-year career in the championship. Not bad at all for the four-time champion, who is intending to bow out from full time competition at the end of this season despite looking as strong and in-form as he ever has been.
"This feels amazing to me. I can't believe this is my first pole here at Las Vegas and it happens in my final race here. So, that's pretty cool!" he said.
See full qualifying times from Las Vegas
"I was thinking about just ending it right there, like: 'I'm out of here, see ya'!" he laughed when asked afterwards whether this sort of performance might persuade him to reconsider his decision to retire from the sport at the age of 43. "I mean I'm not leaving because I don't feel like I'm not competitive anymore or I'm not with the best team, I'm leaving because it just feels like the right time.
"The stars have aligned and the moment is here to do something different," he continued. "I don't think there is anything more exciting than the opportunity to go out there and win races and poles and maybe if we are fortunate enough to go battle for that championship.
"I can't sit here and sit on one pole and go 'Okay, we are going to win the championship' but I think we are a very good race team," he added. "We haven't shown all of it yet. There is nothing to me that is sweeter than to be able to go have that kind of experience in your final year. There is no reconsidering."
Gordon's pole time in the final round of qualifying was 27.738s (194.679mph), beating the previous track record at LVMS set last year by Penske's Joey Logano, who this time will have to settle for the shotgun spot on the front row after finishing 0.052s off Gordon's time in the top 12 pole shoot-out stage.
"It's unbelievable," said Gordon as he considered how much faster the cars have been so far this season, despite new rules from NASCAR to reduce downforce and horsepower in 2015 that should have slowed the cars down. "They took a step, but the teams are just so good at getting some of that back. When you can hold it wide-open like that it's amazing at just how good the cars stick."
"We talked to them about when you pull out power, you go faster through the middle of the corner and I think that the whole goal was to take downforce out to make up for that, and I think a lot of us would like to have seen a little bit more downforce taken out of it," he explained.
As for his own qualifying performance, Gordon said that "It feels amazing. I knew we had a strong car in practice, especially when we were in qualifying trim. I was a little bit nervous the first round. I went down into 1 and I knew the conditions had cooled down slightly and I felt like there was going to be a little bit more grip, and I went down into 1 and I don't know if I missed my line or was just too aggressive, but I got into the bumps and the car moved around a lot and it just didn't stick the way I had hoped it would.
"It wasn't a very good lap, but good enough to get through. And then in round 2, I was a little bit more conservative getting into 1 and just got my line. Maybe the air pressure built up a little bit. The car flew through 1 and 2, and then in 3 and 4 I was maybe a little bit conservative. It was still a really solid lap.
"Then we went on to round 3 and I saw some lap times that were up there before us and knew that if we were going to sit on the pole, we would have to be fully committed to trying to go as close to wide-open as possible. It was really, really close, but the car was just amazing. I came off turn 4 and I felt pretty confident that it was going to be either close enough or good enough. And it was. So it was awesome."
Despite his form in qualifying so far this season, 2015 hasn't started off well for Gordon. He was spun out on the final lap at Daytona, and then was involved in another accident at Atlanta last weekend, so he's hoping that he's had his quota of bad luck for the time being. "After last week and that whole mess, it was great to get out there and qualify and great to get some redemption for 3M and the team," he agreed.
Meanwhile, Joey Logano was left ruing a near-miss in second place on the grid. "I thought the last lap was really good. I felt good about it and thought it was the fastest I had been but Jeff laid down a really good one," he said. "[His lap] was a good bit faster. I am sure we could find it, we just have to look at the data and see what happened.
"We were so close. We had a good Pennzoil Platinum Ford, it has some speed in it which is cool," he pointed out. "The last couple weeks this thing has had some speed and getting the pole here last year was cool and we were so close this time. The track keeps cooling off and you have to adjust to that as a driver and a team. You have to be able to adjust the car to that."
On the second row, two of Gordon's Hendrick team mates Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will line up side-by-side for the green flag on Sunday afternoon in Nevada. With Jimmie Johnson - the fourth member of the Hendrick squad - qualifying in ninth place it means that the whole of the four-car squad made it into the top ten on Friday afternoon, an impressive result by anyone's standards.
"So far it's been good, as far as qualifying goes.," agreed Kahne. "We have all had really good speed, so that is just a lot of people working hard to make that happen around all of Hendrick Motorsports."
"We've really turned around our program as far as qualifying goes, because that makes the races a whole lot easier," added Earnhardt. "The guys are working their butts off. They are doing a great job just really giving me a fun car. That car was so fun right there, real easy. I wasn't worried about the car or concerned with the balance of the car, the car was really underneath me. We were able to just work away and just not hustle and not up out of the race track and worried.
"Really really happy man, just two weeks in a row we have done great on the 1.5-miles,' he said. "I hope it is a sign of things to come. Definitely going to help us race better being able to qualify better. We have been hurting ourselves real bad over the last couple of years, not qualifying well making it difficult in them races."
Kyle Larson - who had earlier paced the single Cup practice session on Friday - will start from fifth place alongside Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth, ahead of Richard Childress Racing's Ryan Newman and Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr., while Larson's Ganassi team mate Jamie McMurray will line-up alongside Johnson on row 5. Also making it through to the final round of qualifying were former Cup champions Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart.
Just missing out on the cut was David Ragan in his second week substituting for the injured Kyle Busch in the #18 JGR entry; he'll start in 13th place alongside his team mate Carl Edwards. Current Cup champion Kevin Harvick could only manage 18th place putting him just ahead of the fourth JGR car driven by Denny Hamlin.
Back on the grid in 28th place for his first start in 2015 will be Michael Waltrip Racing's Brian Vickers, who had been forced to sit out the first two rounds at Daytona and Atlanta as he recovered from heart surgery over the off-season. Vickers - who was forced out of the 2010 season because of health issues - needed to have an artificial patch on a hole in his heart replaced two months ago, but it now fully recovered and raring to go.
"I kind of look at it like a win-win, if we go out there and do well that is great and if we don't just being able to get back in a race car is incredible," Vickers said. "No matter the outcome I am happy to be here."
Vickers revealed that at one point in the process, it looked as though the odds were against him ever returning to competition again.
"I think [the doctors] were trying to set expectations and they were like, 'It's not looking good.' They didn't want to say no, but they were a far cry from yes," he said. "They needed to really kind of get in there and get into my heart basically – which kind of sounds weird to say – and kind of figure out what's going on before they could really give me an answer, but they were kind of setting the bar pretty low.
"I kind of dealt with that and then as they learned more, as they came out they were like, 'Okay, we definitely know what happened and why and we fixed it and we're not worried about it moving forward, so we think you're good to go, but let's do a check-up in a month and we'll see,' and, you know, kind of see how it goes.
"[Racing] is something I love," he continued. "It's something over the last ten years and my life and particularly the last five years dealing with everything, I've learned that my love for racing has only increased – my love for what I do and how much I appreciate it – but I've also learned that it's not who I am. It's something I do and it's part of who I am. It's a very special part of who I am and it's something that means the world to me, but it's not who I am. If I can't race, that's okay, life is going to go on. I think from that perspective, yes, I asked the doctors, 'Can I go race and I want to go race,' but if they say no, I'm not going to fight them.
"There are certainly times where I wasn't sure if I was ever going to be back and then you kind of deal with those emotions and then all the sudden you're back and then you have to deal with those emotions. I couldn't be more thrilled about it," he summed up. "It's awesome. I think that's the best way to describe it."
Brett Moffitt stood in for Vickers in the #55 MWR Toyota last week in Atlanta and had an impressive run to eighth place which meant that he's now been handed a three-race stint at Front Row Racing in the #34, subbing for David Ragan while the regular driver is himself deputising for Kyle Busch at JGR.
"It was a great opportunity last week that Michael Waltrip Racing gave me," said Moffitt, making the grid in Vegas in 36th place. "To go out there on a one-off deal and make the most of it meant the world to me. It was a high pressure situation and it opened up this door with Front Row Motorsports over the next three races. Hopefully we can continue this string of success here."
There were five drivers who were unable to make the grid based on speed and who didn't have sufficient 2014 owner points to fall back on to assure them a spot in the race. Mike Bliss, Reed Sorenson, Travis Kvapil, Mike Wallace and Matt DiBenedetto will now all go home early while the rest of the field will get back to work with two 55 minute practice sessions on Saturday ahead of Sunday's race starting at 12.30pm local time, 8.30pm GMT.
Also in action this weekend is the NASCAR Xfinity (previously Nationwide) Series, with Austin Dillon pacing the field in both of Friday's practice sessions. The Camping World Truck Series is currently on hiatus until the end of March.
See full qualifying times from Las Vegas