Daytona Beach, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - Jeff Gordon will start on the pole for his final Daytona 500 after winning Sunday's qualifying, which featured NASCAR's group qualifying format for the first time in the 57-year history of this prestigious race.
Gordon, who announced last month that 2015 will be his last season competing full-time in the Sprint Cup Series, turned a lap at 201.293 mph during the third and final round of qualifying to guarantee himself the top starting position for the Feb. 22 Daytona 500.
"Whew, that feels good. That's awesome," Gordon said. "This is one of the most gratifying poles here at Daytona that I have ever had. Not just because my final Daytona 500, but because you have to try to plan it out and you have to try to play that chess match and we played it really well."
Each of the three rounds in qualifying were five minutes in length. The 12 drivers competing in the final round did not get on this 2.5-mile track until 1 minute left, allowing them to make only a single qualifying lap.
It was the 78th career pole win for Gordon, including his second in the Daytona 500. Gordon is a four-time series champion and a three-time winner of the Daytona 500 (1997, '99 and 2005). His victory in the '99 season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway came from the pole.
Jimmie Johnson, the six-time series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner (2006 and '13), will share the front row with Gordon, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, after posting a lap at 201.135 mph. Gordon and Johnson are the only drivers who have their starting positions determined for this race. Positions 3-43 will be set in Thursday's Budweiser Duel twin-qualifying races at Daytona.
"To start next to (Gordon) in his final Daytona 500, it's really cool," Johnson said.
NASCAR's group qualifying format for the Daytona 500 was not exactly a hit with drivers and teams. Many drivers, including Clint Bowyer, criticized the format. Bowyer was one of five competitors involved in a crash that occurred in turn 1 with 1 minute, 22 seconds remaining in the first group of the opening round in qualifying. It was the only incident during the three-round session.
Bowyer was attempting to move around Reed Sorenson, but Sorenson tried to block him. Both drivers made contact and spun before hitting the wall. Denny Hamlin, Bobby Labonte and J.J. Yeley were also involved in the wreck.
After climbing out of his battered No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, Bowyer approached Sorenson, who was still in his car, and had words with him. Bowyer also wrecked in Saturday night's Sprint Unlimited preseason race at Daytona, which was won by Matt Kenseth.
"It's idiotic to be out here doing this anyway," Bowyer said in frustration after the incident. "There's no sense in being able to try to put on some cute show for whatever the hell this is. Then you've got a guy (Sorenson) out there in desperation, doing this crap like this. There's no reason to be out here. These guys have spent six months working on these cars, busting their (butts) on these cars, to go out there and have some guy out of desperation do that crap.
"But it ain't (Sorenson's) fault. It's not. It's NASCAR's fault for putting us out here in the middle of this crap for nothing. We used to come down here and worry about who was going to sit on the front row and the pole for the biggest race of the year. Now, all we do is come down here and worry about how a start-and-park like this out of desperation is going to knock us out of the Daytona 500. We've been in meetings for 45 minutes just to try and figure out what in the hell everyone is going to do, just so we can make the race. It's stupid. There's no sense in doing this."
Last week, Sorenson landed a ride with Team Xtreme Racing, driving the No. 44 Chevrolet, for Daytona only. The team currently does not have a backup car, so it's not known if he will compete in the twin qualifiers later this week. Sorenson did take the blame for the accident.
"I was just trying to block," he said. "I was doing everything I could to stay in front of Clint. I didn't mean to wreck anybody. Just a product of this qualifying. I didn't want it to end that way. I apologize to all the guys. We'll try to get a car here to race on Thursday."
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick, the reigning series champion, were among those drivers who complained about the new qualifying format for the Daytona 500, posting their comments on social media after the session had concluded.
"Today used to be about showcasing the hard work from the teams over the winter. Now it is a complete embarrassment for our series," Stewart wrote on his Twitter account.
"Sucks that 56 years of tradition at Daytona where fast cars ruled had ended.......," Harvick tweeted.
NASCAR plans to review its qualifying format for restrictor-plate races (Daytona and Talladega) and determine if any modifications need to be made in the future.
"We used (the qualifying format) last year in Daytona for the summer race, and we made some adjustments from there," NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell said during a post-qualifying press conference. "Going into Talladega (last October), obviously learned throughout that. Then came into Daytona with some minor adjustments for the Daytona 500, as well.
"So if you look at group qualifying as a whole, we felt it worked really well, but certainly there's some challenges on superspeedways...I believe we've got a really good track record of making adjustments where we need to, so we'll certainly evaluate what took place today, we'll continue to get feedback from the industry, from the drivers as we did to get to where we were today."
Sunday's qualifying results for the Daytona 500:
1. Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, 201.293 mph (Round 3)
2. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, 201.135 mph (Round 3)
3. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, 200.933 mph (Round 3)
4. Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Toyota, 200.214 mph (Round 3)
5. Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, 200.187 mph (Round 3)
6. Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, 199.867 mph (Round 3)
7. Carl Edwards, No. 19 Toyota, 197.837 mph (Round 3)
8. Ty Dillon, No. 33 Chevrolet, 197.507 mph (Round 3)
9. Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, 196.962 mph (Round 3)
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, 195.080 mph (Round 3)
11. Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, 193.133 mph (Round 3)
12. Martin Truex Jr., No. 78 Chevrolet, 190.678 mph (Round 3)
13. Johnny Sauter, No. 83 Toyota, 198.220 mph (Round 2)
14. Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, 197.477 mph (Round 2)
15. Trevor Bayne, No. 6 Ford, 197.256 mph (Round 2)
16. Sam Hornish Jr., No. 9 Ford, 197.243 mph (Round 2)
17. Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, 197.200 mph (Round 2)
18. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 17 Ford, 196.816 mph (Round 2)
19. Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford, 193.357 mph (Round 2)
20. Ryan Blaney, No. 21 Ford, 193.282 mph (Round 2)
21. Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford, 193.241 mph (Round 2)
22. Michael Waltrip, No. 55 Toyota, 190.517 mph (Round 2)
23. J.J. Yeley, No. 23 Toyota, 0.000 mph (Round 2)
24. Bobby Labonte, No. 32 Ford, 0.000 mph (Round 2)
25. Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, 198.325 mph (Round 1, Group B)
26. Alex Bowman, No. No. 7 Chevrolet, 198.229 mph (Round 1, Group B)
27. A.J. Allmendinger, No. 47 Chevrolet, 198.212 mph (Round 1, Group B)
28. Ryan Newman, No. 31 Chevrolet, 198.177 mph (Round 1, Group B)
29. Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Chevrolet, 197.994 mph (Round 1, Group A)
30. Kurt Busch, No. 41 Chevrolet, 197.976 mph (Round 1, Group A)
31. Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevrolet, 197.968 mph (Round 1, Group A)
32. Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, 197.959 mph (Round 1, Group A)
33. Casey Mears, No. 13 Chevrolet, 197.946 mph (Round 1, Group A)
34. Brian Scott, No. 62 Chevrolet, 197.828 mph (Round 1, Group A)
35. Michael Annett, No. 46 Chevrolet, 195.554 mph (Round 1, Group A)
36. Justin Allgaier, No. 51 Chevrolet, 196.532 mph (Round 1, Group A)
37. Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet, 195.588 mph (Round 1, Group B)
38. David Gilliland, No. 38 Ford, 195.346 mph (Round 1, Group A)
39. Michael McDowell, No. 95 Ford, 195.300 mph (Round 1, Group B)
40. Jeb Burton, No. 26 Toyota, 195.004 mph (Round 1, Group A)
41. Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Toyota, 194.995 mph (Round 1, Group A)
42. Reed Sorenson, No. 44 Chevrolet, 194.978 mph (Round 1, Group A)
43. Justin Marks, No. 29 Toyota, 194.675 mph (Round 1, Group B)
44. David Ragan, No. 34 Ford, 194.452 mph (Round 1, Group A)
45. Cole Whitt, No. 35 Ford, 194.012 mph (Round 1, Group A)
46. Josh Wise, No. 98 Ford, 193.386 mph (Round 1, Group B)
47. Landon Cassill, No. 40 Chevrolet, 193.299 mph (Round 1, Group B)
48. Mike Wallace, No. 66 Toyota, 192.509 mph (Round 1, Group A)
49. Ron Hornaday Jr., No. 30 Chevrolet, 190.791 mph (Round 1, Group B)