HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Jeff Gordon did his best to shake off the disappointment over his elimination from the championship field by winning the pole for Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Gordon turned a lap at 180.747 mph in Friday qualifying to earn the top starting spot for a race that became meaningless to his season after he crossed the finish line last week at Phoenix. Gordon finished second and was in the field of four drivers for the championship race, but he was knocked out seconds later by Ryan Newman.
Using an aggressive pass of Kyle Larson coming out of the final turn, Newman picked up the one position he needed to knock Gordon from the championship race by one point.
Now Gordon will race only for the trophy on Sunday, while Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman will compete for the title.
“It hit me hard when I crossed the line at Phoenix. I think I was just really in disbelief for a good 24 hours that we did everything so right and didn’t make it,” Gordon said. “That disappointment was definitely there throughout the week. I think even if we win this race on Sunday, that’s only going to make it hurt a little bit more in some ways because we could have won the championship if we were here.”
Gordon, a four-time winner this season and the points leader for most of the year, was seeking his fifth championship. Now he’s just trying to close out the season on a high note for his Hendrick Motorsports team.
The first step was winning the 200th pole for the Hendrick organization. Kurt Busch qualified second and was followed by Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski.
“I think the way we’re looking at this weekend is we want to finish this season on the best note possible,” Gordon said. “It’s been a tremendous season for us. I’m disappointed we’re not in this thing for the championship, but that’s not going to stop us from trying to win the pole and win the race.”
Harvick will lead the title contenders Sunday by starting fifth. Hamlin will start eighth and Logano is in the 12th slot. Newman was the worst qualifier at 21st.
Harvick continued his needling of Logano, the youngest driver in the championship field. It began at Wednesday night’s contenders event when he deliberately tried to rattle Logano, and carried over into Friday when he was told to wait off to the side while Logano and Hamlin were participating in a news conference.
“I’m going up here anyway,” he said as strolled onto the stage. “Going to sit right here next to my buddy.”
Logano grinned, patted Harvick on the back, and said: “What’s up, buddy?”
Hamlin then stood as if he was going to leave, “Alright, I’ll let you two have at it,” he joked.
The champion will be the highest-finishing driver among the four on Sunday, and it will be the first Cup title for the winner.
Hamlin, the defending race winner, said his car feels as good as the Toyota he drove to victory last season.
“Last year, I knew we were going to win the race. I knew in practice we were going to win the race,” Hamlin said, “and my car feels equally as good this time around.”
But Harvick was also confident — just not prepared to talk as tough as Hamlin.
“I think there’s just too many things, way too much to live up to, to make those kind of comments,” he said. “You want to try to prepare yourself for the races as best you can. Hopefully, you make the right adjustments going into the race, and regardless of how our car is in practice, we’ll all wonder if we made the right decisions.”
As the lowest-qualifying driver, Newman seemed to recognize he’ll have his work cut out for him Sunday.
“It’s going to be a crazy race,” Newman said. “It’s going to be some really crazy restarts, but I don’t think your starting position defines who’s going to finish there.”
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