By the end of their careers, the greats can’t be great every night. They just pull out greatness like a hole card.
Take Jeff Gordon during Friday night qualifying for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, the finale of this NASCAR season, the Chase for the Sprint Cup and Gordon’s storied career. The Old Man of the Chase, in movie-cliché style, pulled out three strong qualifying laps around Homestead-Miami Speedway to go from being buried in the back 19 of the starting grid to start fifth, second among the four championship contenders.
As he did, Gordon knocked defending Sprint Cup series champion and Sunday’s favorite, Kevin Harvick, out of the qualifying in the second round. That put Harvick (30.779 seconds, 175.444 mph) in 13th.
Kyle Busch starts the best of the championship final four in third with a third-round lap of 30.671 seconds at 176.263 mph. Gordon ran his third-round lap in 30.806 seconds at 175.291. Martin Truex Jr. starts 11th (30.946, 174.498).
“I need three clutch laps like that to close the race out on Sunday,” Gordon chuckled.
Said Harvick of Gordon.“He was on the pole last year. I don’t think that’s a huge surprise. We thought he would run well and has run well at this track. It’s not his first time.”
Gordon, awaiting his time at the podium, yelled from the back of the room: “I was shocked! Surprised me!”
Gordon’s effort overshadowed Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, snatching the pole from Joey Logano with a lap of 30.568 seconds at 176.655 mph. After being introduced at the podium, Hamlin added, “Also known as Mr. Irrelevant.”
Hamlin and Busch ran practice laps earlier in the day in race trim, as did Gordon.
“They did a good job of getting a good guess at what we needed to qualify with,” Busch said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t a tick better. Pleased with the speed and the way we placed there.
“Nothing to hang our heads about with our teammate on the pole. I’ll definitely learn some things from that.”
Said Truex: “Decent day for us. We never could get the balance car like we wanted. Qualifying hasn’t been our strong suit on these type of tracks. I thought 11th was a decent effort.”
Harvick quickly slammed his speed on the table with an early 30.363 lap (177.848) that stood as the fastest lap in the first round. Busch and Truex ran laps that put them safely into the top 24 that make the second round. Gordon’s first lap, 174.672, immediately looked vulnerable in 18th, though he said over the radio he thought the car felt good.
When the practice-canceling rain hit earlier in the day, Gordon hadn’t taken a lap in qualifying trim.
“I just didn’t push the car had enough,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much more grip was going to be out there compared to practice, and I just wasn’t aggressive enough. The car was fine. I just needed to go faster mainly through [Turns] 1 and 2.”
No. 24 got bumped from the top 24, then went out and got his spot back with a 175.564 lap.
“I really didn’t think we could go faster than that. I didn’t think the tires would have it in them,” Gordon said. “The fact that we were able to advance to the second round was huge. Kind of got me motivated and pumped up after that. We made some big adjustments on the car, which we felt like we needed to do.”
Gordon’s second-round lap (30.705, 175.867) bumped Harvick down to 13th. Harvick’s last minute attempt to get back into the top 12 fell short by .002 of a second (30.779, 175.444).
“Round 1 was really good for us,” Harvick said. “We went to Round 2 and just we’re really tight for the next two runs we made. We just never really recovered what we did in the first round to make it repeat. I think our balance was, too.”
Of course, there’s the question of how much qualifying indicates for the race.
“It don’t,” Busch said. “With the opportunity this racetrack presents of being able to move around — bottom, middle, top, be all over the racetrack — I think you definitely have enough time through 400 miles to work your way to the front.
“It’s not a racetrack like last week at Phoenix … where it’s single file, hard to pass.”
Gordon disagreed: “There’s nice multiple grooves, but I started on the pole here last year, and I know that kept us in the game and up front in a big way. Of course, pit selection has a lot to do with that. But once the groove moves up top, it’s kind of hard to pass.”