NASCAR: Gordon leads Hendrick sweep
By Paul Newberry
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jeff Gordon put himself in select company. So did Rick Hendrick.
Too bad they didn’t get there a little faster.
Gordon won his 70th career pole Saturday and led a Hendrick Motorsports sweep of the top four spots at Talladega Superspeedway — only the third team in NASCAR history to monopolize the first two rows for a Cup race.
Gordon turned a two-lap qualifying average of 178.248 mph for the Aaron’s 499. He broke a tie for third place on the career list with Cale Yarborough and trails only Richard Petty (123) and David Pearson (113).
As for Hendrick, he joined Pete DePaolo (Charlotte, 1956) and Jack Roush (California, 2005) as the only car owners to have the four fastest cars in qualifying for a top-division race. Jimmie Johnson claimed the outside of the front row with a speed of 177.844, with Mark Martin (177.807) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (177.765) taking the second row.
“I had no idea what to expect, and neither did the team. We certainly didn’t expect to go out and do 1-2-3-4 for Hendrick,” Gordon said. “It’s funny how a plan comes together when you least expect it.”
But the four-time series champion wasn’t all that thrilled about another landmark: the slowest speed ever to claim the pole at Talladega.
It wasn’t even close. Gordon was more than 6 mph slower than the previous mark, a pole-winning speed of 184.640 by Clint Bowyer for the fall race last year.
“I felt like I could’ve walked faster than I was going,” Gordon said. “Anybody could drive that car at that speed. We need to make it a little more interesting.”
The horsepower-sapping restrictor plates are more limiting than ever. With the teams figuring out they can go faster driving in tandem rather than drafting in larger packs, NASCAR mandated a smaller plate at this high-banked track to keep speeds under control during the race.
But that made qualifying “just a snoozer” from Gordon’s perspective.
“We need to make it more entertaining for the fans and for us. We’re not doing anything out there right now,” he said. “I don’t see why we couldn’t get out there and go in the 200 mph range during qualifying.”
That used to be the norm at Talladega, but no one has eclipsed 200 mph in qualifying since 1987. Gordon suggested that teams be allowed to remove the plate during qualifying, or at least use one that doesn’t drain as much power.
“In this day and age, to have the slowest qualifying lap we’ve ever had at this place — come on, that’s crazy,” he said.
The first non-Hendrick starter in Sunday’s race will be Paul Menard (177.702) of Richard Childress Racing. Landon Cassill gave Chevrolet the top six spots in the 43-car field with a career-best qualifying effort.
Failing to qualify were Mike Skinner, Tony Raines and Michael McDowell.
By starting up front, Hendrick’s four cars will be able to pair off right from the green flag — Gordon working with Martin, Johnson with Earnhardt.
“That’s as good as we could possibly ask for,” Gordon said. “If we could write the script, we couldn’t have written it any better.”
If only he could’ve gone a lot faster.