RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. did exactly what was necessary to win the pole for Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richard International Raceway — and teammate Jeff Gordon did more than enough to make Kyle Busch very nervous.
The 44th of 45 drivers to make a qualifying attempt in Friday’s time trials, Earnhardt toured the .75-mile speedway in 21.526 seconds (127.023 mph) to claim his first Coors Light pole award of the season, his first at Richmond and the 11th of his career.
But it was Gordon who put himself in position for a last-ditch attempt to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with a second-place run at 126.981 mph. Gordon can dislodge Kyle Busch from the second provisional wild-card position by winning the race (if Tony Stewart remains in the top 10 in the Cup standings) or by beating Busch by more than 12 points, if no wild-card contender with one victory wins on Saturday night.
Busch posted the 15th-fastest time on Friday and will start the race 13 positions — the equivalent of 13 points — behind Gordon, setting up a dramatic shootout for the final wild-card spot.
“I think today was a big mission accomplished for us,” Gordon said. “We were very solid in practice all day. I know exactly where I left a little bit out there in (Turns) 1 and 2. I got everything out of it in 3 and 4. But in 1 and 2, I knew I got down to the yellow line too early and just couldn’t get back to the gas as hard as I needed to.
“When you do that, you know that there’s somebody out there that has a shot of getting you. Second is still a fantastic effort. We had a great practice today, and our car was solid, so (I’m) pretty excited about this race tomorrow.”
Earnhardt, who has already qualified for the Chase, saw the efforts of his No. 88 team to improve the qualifying performance pay off.
“We’ve been working the last two years to improve — we haven’t been very good in qualifying all season, and this year we made some gains,” Earnhardt said. “It feels good to get a pole position and know that we’re doing something right there.
“It gives us a good starting spot for tomorrow. We feel pretty confident about the car after practice today, and starting up front is an advantage. I’m happy that we’re performing well and look forward to the race.”
Regan Smith (126.910 mph) qualified third, followed by Clint Bowyer (126.808 mph) and Jimmie Johnson (126.790 mph). Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski will start from positions six through 10, respectively.
In addition to Logano, drivers who could grab a wild-card spot with a win will take the green flag as follows: Ryan Newman 14th and Marcos Ambrose 22nd. Two other drivers who are winless this season but still have a remote chance to make the Chase are Carl Edwards (16th) and Paul Menard (27th).
JJ Yeley and Mark Green failed to make the 43-car field.