Gordon captures pole for Daytona 500

Amanda Vincent - NASCAR Wire Service Sunday, Feb 15 1597

Jeff Gordon will kick off his final season of full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing with the pole starting spot for next Sunday's Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

He captured his third Daytona 500 pole on Sunday with a lap time of 44.711 seconds (201.293 mph) during the third of three rounds of qualifying. When he takes the green flag from the front next weekend, he'll be going after his third Daytona 500 victory.

Gordon will be joined on the front row by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. Johnson claimed the other Daytona 500 starting spot that was assigned on Sunday with a 44.746-second (201.135-mph) lap.

"Very interesting qualifying to say the least," Johnson said. "Obviously, the front row is very special."

The front row starts for Gordon and Johnson for the 2015 race mark the fourth time Hendrick Motorsports has swept the front row of the Daytona 500 starting grid.

"The team at Hendrick Motorsports puts so much effort on these restrictor plate races," Gordon said.

The remainder of the race's starting grid will be set based on results from the Budweiser Duels, two 150-mile races, on Thursday night.

Sunday's qualifying session was the first with a knockout format for the Daytona 500. Heading to Daytona for Speedweeks, a majority of drivers were critical of using knockout qualifying at Daytona, given how qualifying turned out at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, the other restrictor plate track on the schedule, last fall.

At Talladega last year, several drivers failed to post lap times because of a cat-and-mouse game on pit road when nobody wanted to be the first one out on the track. For that race, Gordon came close to not qualifying, and Tony Stewart had to rely on a past champion's provisional to get a starting spot.

"I don't believe in the qualifying format, especially as what we do at restrictor plate tracks," driver Ryan Newman said. "At the non-restrictor plate tracks, I could argue it, even in my own head, because it's still the driver and the race track. But having other cars manipulate you in an effort to qualify, especially at one of the biggest races of the year, to me is not in the best eyes of our sport. Just based on who might get knocked out for somebody else's or team order, that is not necessarily fair."

On Sunday, though, every driver in every round posted lap times, but another fear of drivers reared its head when the first group was on the track in round one. Reed Sorenson, with a smaller budget team and desperately needing to race his way into the 500, set off a chain reaction that collected the cars of Clint Bowyer, J.J. Yeley and Bobby Labonte and caused slight damage to Denny Hamlin's car. Afterward, Sorenson accepted full responsibility, but Hamlin blamed NASCAR, not Sorenson, for the wreck.

"It's idiotic to be out here doing this anyway," Bowyer said. "These guys (crew members) have been working for six months on these cars."

Before the incident, Hamlin, Labonte and Yeley had all posted lap times fast enough to advance to the second round, but the cars of Labonte and Yeley sustained too much damage to continue.

After qualifying, though, Gordon did provide one positive for drivers under the new format.

"The driver finally plays a role," Gordon said, pointing out that qualifying at Daytona used to be more about the cars than the drivers.

Forty-nine cars made qualifying attempts on Sunday, and after Thursday's Duel races, 43 cars will have spots on the starting grid for the Daytona 500. Sorenson's plans to continue to attempt to make the race are unknown, as his team doesn't currently have a backup car at Daytona.