Jeff Gordon, a racing legend in his own time, ought to have an ax to grind.
Controversial on-track incidents the past two weeks, in league with NASCAR’s revolutionary revision of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Cup format, might have cost him a last, best chance to capture a fifth championship.
But the 43-year-old driver apparently brought no lingering bitterness or emotional baggage to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday.
For a day anyway, Gordon stepped from the giant shadow cast by remaining Championship 4 contenders Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman to claim the pole position for Sunday’s 3 p.m. green flag.
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Harvick qualified fastest of the four title aspirants and will be positioned inside on the third two-car row at the start.
However, two cchampionship ontenders are stacked next to Harvick, with Hamlin starting from the fourth row and Logano from the fifth.
Newman qualified only 21st. But that can be regarded as symbolic, given that the 36-year-old Indiana native arrives for the title showdown winless and having struggled from behind and largely uphill all year.
“A buddy of mine told me once, ‘It’s not where you start; it’s where you stop,’” Newman quipped.
Harvick, a winner four times and leader of a monumental 2,083 laps in a dominating season, expressed satisfaction with the No.4 Budweiser Chevrolet he steers for Stewart-Haas Racing. “We’ve had a good day,” he said, generally echoing confidence expressed by his rivals.
None of the four has won a Cup championship. Their mission has been simplified in the new format: Whoever wins their race within a race claims the prized trophy and a coveted niche in the sport’s history.
Gordon blitzed Homestead’s 1.5-mile oval with a lap of 180.747 mph in the No.24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet to give career-long boss Rick Hendrick and the Hendrick Motorsports crew the organization’s 200th career pole. It was Gordon’s 77th.
That left him weighing a good news/bad news situation.
“If we win this race Sunday, that’s only going to make it hurt a little bit more” that he didn’t advance to the championship round, Gordon said.
But the motivation will be there, nonetheless.
“With everything that has happened to us in the last couple weeks, we need to have something really good to carry into this offseason,” he said.
Two weeks ago, with Gordon apparently victory-bound, a late-race caution when Clint Bowyer hit the wall bunched the field double-file for a restart.
Jimmie Johnson and Gordon dueled side-by-side into turn one only to have Brad Keselowski try to squeeze between them and bang into Gordon. The contact damaged Gordon’s left rear tire and caused him to spin to a 29th-place finish.
Even after that, Gordon entered the final lap at Phoenix last Sunday running second to winner Kevin Harvick and a single point to the good to make the Championship 4.
But Newman, running 12th, made a banzai charge inside talented rookie Kyle Larson between turns three and four, even as Gordon was taking the checkered flag.
Newman knocked Larson into the wall and earned the additional point for 11th that sustained his own remote title hopes and dashed Gordon’s.
“It hit me hard when I crossed the line at Phoenix,” Gordon said of the devastating letdown. “I think I was just really in disbelief for a good 24 hours that we did everything so right and didn’t make it” into the Championship 4.
Knowing what might have been will create those mixed emotions should he win Sunday. “[But] I can tell you, if we come out of here with a bad finish, it’s going to sting. It’s going to hurt.”
Gordon’s four championships rank behind only the record-sharing Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson with six.
At his age and with a parade to talented newcomers on the rise, this four-victory season might have been his best shot at five.
He enters Sunday with “a lot less stress on us.” But it was a stress wanted to experience.