Jeff Gordon was looking very much on form as he claimed pole position for Sunday's GEICO 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega. It's the fourth time in 45 visits to the superspeedway that the four-time champion will have started from pole.
It continues a remarkably re-energised performance so far this season for the 43-year-old, who has already announced that he is retiring from full time competition at the end of the current season. Despite that, he's now clinched three poles from the first ten races in 2015, boosting his all-time career record to an impressive 80 pole positions.
CLICK: Full Sprint Cup qualifying times from Talladega Superspeedway
Gordon's pole lap of 49.160s (194.793mph) put him an impressive 0.281s ahead of his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Kasey Kahne on the 2.666-mile circuit, who will join him on the front for for the start of this weekend's Cup race for which he has high hopes of clinching his first win of the season and with it a place in his final Chase play-offs for the 2015 title.
"We definitely have a fast Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, I think we've shown that all weekend long," he said. "But you never know what you've got until you put it on the clock.
"I knew the car was fast there. For this team to bring another car, a different car here, and all the hard work from the engine shop and what they do with the bodies, and chassis and prep," he added. "A lot of hard work goes into this and [crew chief] Alan Gustafson takes a lot of pride in these. They should, this is awesome.
"And awesome for Hendrick Motorsports to be on the front row," he pointed out. "This was all them. I played a small role at Daytona, but I played no
role today - but it was fun."
It was indeed overall an impressive showing for the Hendrick squads, with Gordon and Kahne joined in the top five by their team mates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson in fourth and fifth places respectively.
"The Hendrick cars are really strong, and the engines are running great," beamed Kahne. "Our Farmers Insurance Chevy was fast right there. I told Jeff I was coming to the front row. I knew I wouldn't beat him because he is really quick, but I knew we could get up to second. I was really happy with that. It is a good starting spot. Hopefully tomorrow we stay out of trouble and we are there at the end and have a shot."
"The car ran good," contributed Earnhardt. "We got into that last round. We don't have as much speed as some of the other guys, but we will work on it. Get to go ahead and get ready for the race."
Only the impudence of Wood Brothers Racing's Ryan Blaney capturing third place on the grid stopped it from being a complete Hendrick whitewash on Saturday. "We've got good speed, that's cool," said Blaney after qualifying concluded. "We've got pretty good speed in our Ford and it's just nice to be back with this Wood Brothers team.
"I've definitely been itching to get back to the track and it's cool to finally be back here and have a good car, too," he continued. "We've got a good starting spot and hopefully we'll be able to run all the laps tomorrow and not have any issues and stay out of trouble.
"This team really needs a good finish," Blaney admitted. "After having a good car at Texas and blowing up early that really kind of brought us down, so we'll try to run all the laps tomorrow and see if we can pick this team up a little bit before Charlotte."
This was the first Cup qualifying session at Talladega since NASCAR changed the rules for superspeedways to revert to single car time trials, after group qualifying proved less than successful at the season opener at Daytona in February. The new format saw the session reduced to just two rounds with a ten minute interval in between, with the top 12 posted lap speeds advancing to the second round. Cars were able to take one timed lap in each round of qualifying with each vehicle released at a predetermined timed interval as directed by race control. The order was set by random draw for the first round, and by reverse order of their initial lap time for the second.
"I am so proud of this pole because we got the pole in [the last restrictor plate race at] Daytona, but it was a totally different format," said Gordon.
"I think it's a great way to manage the requirement of qualifying," noted Johnson about the new format. "We tried to make it more exciting with group drafting and that had some issues to it. I think it's a good balance. It's an efficient way we have two rounds not necessarily the most exciting thing, but still far better than the old single car three lap deal that we had. I think it's a good kind of blend of the two worlds."
"The one thing I wanted more than anything was for the fastest car to get the pole and so forth on down the line," contributed Earnhardt when asked for his own feelings about the new way of setting the grid. "We will see how this works. We will see how it goes it's really going to come down to how the fans perceive it and whether the fans enjoy it.
"I don't really have the best idea on how to do that to make it exciting to where it's very enjoyable to watch. I like NASCAR's attempt at trying to put the best product forward in the best interest of everybody, the drivers, the fans and the crews. It's not going to be as exciting as having guys crashing across the finish line and wading race cars up, but it's very difficult on the teams to be tearing up all these cars in qualifying," he noted.
The new format certainly seemed to suit the Hendrick camp - and did no harm at all to Blaney and the Wood Brothers, either - and it was also a boost for sixth-place Tony Stewart who has been suffering his worst start to a Cup season in his career so far in 2015.
"This is the event where you wish those guys could all be here because it really shows the fruit of their labour more than it does what we do here at the track," said Stewart, praising the work of crew chief Chad Johnson and the personnel back at the team's headquarters in North Carolina. "The work that takes place before you get to the shop shows up when you get here."
Paul Menard (Richard Childress Racing) ended qualifying in seventh ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing pair Matt Kenseth and David Ragan, with Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer in tenth. The final transfer spots went to Casey Mears (Germain Racing) and Sam Hornish Jr. (Richard Petty Motorsports.)
That meant there were some conspicuous absences from the top-12 pole shoot-out round, with neither of the two Team Penske drivers making it through and Stewart proving to be the only member of the Stewart-Haas Racing contingent to get through from the first round.
"I don't know if frustrating is the word, but it's just one part of the weekend and it's a long weekend," sighed Brad Keselowski, who will start this week's race from 15th place in the Penske #2 while his team mate Joey Logano will take the green flag in 21st. "The most important part of it will be the last lap on Sunday, so it's good at least with this format to know you're not gonna tear up your car and hopefully we can carry that forward to the race when it ends."
As for the SHR line-up, last week's race winner Kurt Busch set the 19th fastest time in the first round of qualifying while reigning champion Kevin Harvick slumped to a disappointing 24th pace just one spot ahead of his team mate Danica Patrick.
"Our starting position won't be very good but I feel good about where our car is in the draft, that is the main thing," insisted Harvick, who despite the disappointment was still positive about the new-look qualifying system for Talladega. "I think it definitely shows a more traditional way of showing who has the fastest cars and it rewards the efforts that the guys put into it. I think it's gone pretty smooth and I think it was a great adjustment."
Also disappointed with his outcome from qualifying was Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who will start from 29th place despite setting the fastest time of anyone of the weekend thus far in first practice on Friday, but finding that sort of pace elusive when it came to qualifying.
"It drafted really well yesterday and it doesn't really matter where you start," said Stenhouse, who memorably got bumped off the grid altogether in the Cup field's last visit to Talladega Superspeedway in October. "It's better - it's definitely, for me, obviously I like it a lot better!" agreed the 27-year-old. "We're still not near as fast as we want to be, so you'll always be disappointed and find ways to be disappointed.
"All in all, I'm definitely glad they made the change to go back to this format," he said. "I love getting up to speed and just one lap, that helps it go by a little bit quicker for the fans and I think that was really one of the big processes is it took so long to do three full laps around here for us and qualifying took forever, so I definitely like it. I definitely feel a lot better about it and we'll go race tomorrow. I feel pretty good about [the car.]"
With 45 cars vying for the 43 available places on the starting grid for Sunday afternoon's race, Michael McDowell and Jeb Burton were the two losers in the game of musical chairs who will be heading home early this evening.
See full Sprint Cup qualifying times from Talladega Superspeedway
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