Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick will start on the front row in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500
After knocking Kevin Harvick from the top spot in qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon celebrated with the vigor of a victory.
This 1.5-mile oval has played a special role in Gordon’s illustrious career — from being the site for the first of his 87 career wins in May 1994 to the backdrop for his most dominant car (the T-Rex in ’97) — and the four-time champion smiled and whooped through his interviews Thursday night as if Charlotte might be providing another indelible moment.
“I know it’s just qualifying, but this is huge,” Gordon said. “I see the look on my guys’ faces when we’re passing cars and driving to the front like Chicago (the Chase opener). Those guys are fired up.
“They saw I might be 42 years old and in this sport a long time and barely made it in the Chase. But put us in that moment with a car that handles like that, and I’ll give it everything I’ve got. We’re really coming together as a team.”
The guy starting next to him in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 could appreciate it.
Harvick won from the pole position last week at Kansas Speedway, reaffirming an important axiom in NASCAR’s premier series that where a driver qualifies often can be a primary determinant in the finish.
The drivers occupying the top two starting spots for Saturday’s Bank of America 500 also are the two closest pursuers of championship favorites Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, and their performances in time trials have added a layer of intrigue to a Chase for the Sprint Cup that initially seemed a two-man title race.
“Running up front, you will probably get more good breaks than you will running midpack because you will just have more options,” Harvick said. “That is just like qualifying last week. I think that really opened our eyes to realizing when you have a qualifying day like that you had a lot more options when it came time to come down pit road and not having to scramble all day to keep yourself in the game.
“You’ve just got to try to create some of your own opportunities”
Harvick has done that at Charlotte, qualifying a career-best second at a track where he has won two of the past five races.
The Richard Childress Racing has qualified in the top 12 for four consecutive races, his best stretch of a season in which his average starting position of 15.8 is two spots better than his career average (Kansas marked his first pole in seven years). His team managed a 24-hour turnaround to prepare the same No. 29 Chevrolet that won Kansas for Charlotte (NASCAR inspects winning cars at its R&D Center, meaning the team didn’t get it back until Tuesday).
“Wednesday night, they basically rebuilt the whole car,” said Harvick, who moved to third in the standings (25 points behind Kenseth) with his third win this season. “They have been working hard to come out with some better cars and engines and apply them as the Chase has come on. It’s been nice to see the speed. It seems like everybody just digs a little deeper and just finds a little bit more when it comes Chase time.”
Gordon, who is ranked 32 points behind Kenseth in fourth, also has been surging. His No. 24 Chevrolet has notched six top 10s in the past seven races while also qualifying in the top 15 five times.
It’s been a stark turnaround for the Hendrick Motorsports driver, who went through a stretch of qualifying outside the top 10 in 11 of 13 races from May through August.
“I felt like all year long we have been racing better than we have been qualifying, but qualifying was a weakness for us,” Gordon said. “We needed to get better track position. That is why I give this team a lot of credit they really stepped up. Our setups are just suiting my driving style, and the things that I like to feel in the car. The cars are just giving me good feedback and it’s because they worked so hard through the summer to make improvements.”
He still believes he needs to make at least his first trip to victory lane in 2013, though, to be a contender.
“We’ll have to win a race or two,” Gordon said. “I’m feeling better every race. Every week we’re gaining confidence.”
He also puts a modicum of pressure on Kenseth and Johnson, who are separated by three points atop the standings after combining to sweep the first three wins of the Chase.
At Kansas, each salvaged solid finishes despite adversity (Kenseth was 11th with an ill-handling Toyota he called “evil”; Johnson took sixth after late engine trouble), but neither is taking the competition for granted.
“I certainly have to be aware of (Gordon) and the consistency, the fast cars and great performances they’ve had and the same thing with (Harvick),” Johnson said. “Kevin has got it all. He’s won championships he understands the pressure. He is a hard-nosed racer, (and) things don’t rattle him. His cars have been trending faster and faster, and he showed that last week with a dominating weekend. Looking forward but I certainly know who is behind us.”
So does Kenseth, whose No. 20 Toyota will start 20th at Charlotte — its worst qualifying spot in more than three months.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver hopes to keep the competition “in my rearview mirror, but I’m starting 20th so they’re all out my windshield.
“There’s so much competition I think you really have to run up in the top three or four every week. Certainly we know finishing seventh (two weeks ago at Dover) and 11th isn’t good enough to win a championship against the guys that we’re racing. Really I think we just try to control the things that we can control the best we can.”
Traditionally a mediocre qualifier, Kenseth has done a stellar job of controlling his starting position during his inaugural season with JGR. His average qualifying effort of 8.6 is 10 spots better than his career average of 18.6
“People who typically say qualifying doesn’t matter are usually people like me who have been bad qualifiers,” he said. “Qualifying good has definitely been an advantage. It certainly gets you closer to the front, it gives you a better pit selection and gives you a chance early in the race to lead a lap and get a bonus point.”
It also just leads to good vibes, as Gordon could attest Thursday.
“There’s nothing better than stepping up and knocking it out of the park,” he said. “I know those (crewmembers) are fired up for this race and every race from here on out. It’s great to have everyone believing in one another.”