DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jeff Gordon will start from the pole position in his final Daytona 500 start, emerging as fastest in Sunday’s bizarre debut for group qualifying in the Great American Race.
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson qualified second, the only other position that’s locked into the Sprint Cup Series season opener. The rest of the field will be determined by Thursday’s Budweiser Duel qualifying races, and several big-name drivers will be worried after securing spots following a multicar wreck and general confusion reigned across four sessions in three rounds.
Clint Bowyer blasted NASCAR after his No. 15 Toyota was caught in a crash in the first 4 minutes of qualifying, and Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick also were critical of the new format, which made its debut last year but hadn’t been used for the Daytona 500 before Sunday.
MORE: Drivers blast NASCAR’s use of group qualifying for Daytona 500
Gordon, who announced last month that 2015 would be his last full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series and said last week it would be his final Daytona 500, will start from the pole position for the second time in his career in the crown jewel of the circuit. He won the Daytona 500 after qualifying first in 1999 under the mundane single-car qualifying system that was used for the past 56 years.
The four-time series champion was one of several drivers who didn’t begin their final lap until late in the last 5-minute session; he started his qualifying lap just a few seconds before it wouldn’t have counted.
“This year, the driver finally gets to play a role,” Gordon said. “With a fast race car and coordination with myself and (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and the spotter, that was nerve-wracking. I didn’t think we’d wait that long. I thought we’d go sooner than that.
“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.”