Jeff Gordon is looking to finish off his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career in style, and he started off on the right foot with qualifying on Sunday afternoon. The four-time Sprint Cup Series Champion would win the Daytona 500 pole award.
“This is definitely huge for many reasons,” he commented. “This is one I’ve been stressing about for a while. This format is crazy and chaotic. It can be extremely rewarding when you have a day like we had. To bring that kind of group effort together…
“In the past, this has been one of the easiest days I’ve had all day long. Go out there, hold it wide open, run a couple laps. It’s all about the team, the car, all the preparation they put into it. All that hard work still goes into this effort, but I play a bigger role, the spotter plays a bigger role. There’s just so much more strategy in trying to play this chess match and the time game, the wait game. It just becomes really intense.
“Yeah, this feels good for that reason alone. Then you add that it’s the Daytona 500, the benefits that come along with that, as well as it just being the Daytona 500, the emotion of the announcement I made to start the season, this is my last Daytona 500, this is a very special day.”
The lap that made it count almost didn’t happen as when the final round started, nobody wanted to roll off pit road first.
“We were sitting there fourth after the second round,” Gordon reflected. “Jimmie was first. Jimmie was fine if nobody rolled off pit road. I was actually somewhat okay with that. Fourth still was pretty good. So when they were waiting, we were sitting there, Okay, we’ll just wait with them.
“We were in a good position where if everybody missed the clock or even if like four or five of them made it, then it wasn’t the end of the world. But once they all started to roll, then obviously we were pretty happy.”
The cars only began to roll with a minute and five seconds left, leading some to believe that they’d possibly not make it back to the line.
“I thought halfway through the lap, I was going to miss the clock at the line,” he continued. “They were counting it down coming off of turn four. I was like, I think we’re good here. Once we made it, I thought we were in a really good position to get the pole or maybe second. I thought maybe Jimmie was probably going to get it.”
However, they made it with only mere seconds on the clock, resulting in the lap being counted. As a result, rather than Johnson on pole, Johnson gets to start second with Gordon on the pole.
Gordon says entering the session, he was under a lot of stress in making sure that he was one of the top 24, not wanting to miss the cut as seen by many drivers when the group qualifying format was first tried last year at Talladega Superspeedway.
“That was definitely a lot of the stress, is wanting to do it right,” he commented. “Then talking to our teammates, we had a meeting this morning, we were all over the place on what the right strategy is, how we want to do it, can we work together, should we work together. Is it better to get together, not get together. Who is wanting to get on to that. 30 seconds before you’re getting ready to go it all goes out the window and changes because of what happened in round one, what’s happening when you back out of pit road.
“There’s so much going on in your mind. It’s literally like playing chess at 200 miles an hour. It’s pretty crazy.”
Throughout the first two rounds, Gordon stuck with his teammates. Though when it came to the last five minute round, he made sure to put himself in the right position in the back half to make sure that he got the run that he needed.
“To me every time I’m on the racetrack, I want to win, but I also don’t want to embarrass myself and not make it past round one,” Gordon continued. “We’re Hendrick Motorsports, we’re the 24 team, we have high expectations. That in itself is somewhat stressful. Once you make it past round one, your goal is to make it to round three after that.
“That’s where it all comes to me, is you’re trying not to wreck, tear up your car, and you’re trying to go faster than the other guys to make it there. Once you make it into the final round, it’s either pole or nothing.”
Gordon added that he was also nervous and stressed because there’s always the opportunity to be caught up in a wreck.
“I mean, it’s not out of the question that that can happen at any time. You’re slicing through some cars that maybe are by themselves that aren’t up to speed, slower cars, you have to draft off of them,” he commented. “In the first round, I thought I was going to miss it because we came up on a car, I was pushing Matt, I believe, and I didn’t see the run that was coming behind me. Kyle was pushing. I didn’t know you could push. That was new to me. Kyle was pushing Vickers. They went shooting by me on the inside. I was like, Whoa, where did that come from?”
Gordon got close to wrecking during the second round, when Denny Hamlin waved off the third lap due to the time that had already been posted for the group to make it through to the top 12.
“It was chaos. They were all over the place,” Gordon said of the incident. “That’s something that needs to be worked on on this format, something that needs to be improved. I don’t know what happened with Bowyer. I saw where he dove to the inside and they came together. You certainly can’t block in this format. That’s just uncalled for. But when you wave off, there’s got to be a better way to wave off.
“I don’t know if it’s all cars have to go high, all cars have to go low, but all the cars have to go in one place. You can’t have them three- and four-wide where cars are coming through there doing 20 miles per hour faster than the cars running there. That’s something we need to do better at. By communicating with NASCAR and other drivers, we can do that.”