TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jeff Gordon took the low road to the pole Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.
In a departure from conventional wisdom — and from the rest of the NASCAR Sprint Cup field — Gordon chose a lower line for this first lap around the 2.66-mile track, and the strategy paid off on the second lap with his first Coors Light pole award of the season, his third at Talladega and the 71st of his career, third on the all-time list. Gordon now has won at least one pole per season for 20 straight seasons, matching the all-time NASCAR record of David Pearson.
Gordon covered NASCAR’s longest closed course in 49.973 seconds, posting the only sub-50-second lap among 44 drivers who attempted qualifying for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499. That translated to a speed of 191.623 mph for the four-time Cup champion.
Gordon, who went out 41st, knocked AJ Allmendinger (191.111 mph) off the provisional pole. The 19th driver to attempt qualifying, Allmendinger benefited from a cooler track and a lighter wind before Gordon’s unconventional approach.
Marcos Ambrose (191.039 mph) qualified third, followed by Aric Almirola (190.981 mph) and Kasey Kahne (190.772 mph). Series leader Greg Biffle and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards ran the exact same speed in time trials and will start sixth and seventh, respectively, with Biffle getting the higher position based on owner points.
Gordon said the crux of Sunday’s race would involve the management of temperatures, and for his No. 24 team, that process started with the qualifying run. A lower line on the first lap meant a shorter time on the track and less chance for the car to overheat.
“The temperatures are being managed from the moment that car goes on the track (Friday) till the end of that race,” Gordon said. “So even in qualifying we’re trying to manage ’em and not get ’em too hot. We chose to do that bottom lane, because we feel like it saves about three seconds of time, which is how much longer the engine’s running, building temperature.
“Plus, I feel like this track is big enough that you don’t have to run up high, like Daytona.”
Allmendinger said teams may be forced to rethink their approach to qualifying at Talladega if conditions are as hot (about 86 degrees Fahrenheit) as they were on Saturday.
“It’s so warm out, that I think most of the cars down pit road had to leave open a little bit of tape (on the grille), because they were going to push water too much,” Allmendinger said. “I didn’t see if he (Gordon) was fully taped up, or how much tape he had, but I think that’s kind of the idea that he had, that if you can fully tape up, you’re going to get a little bit of an advantage on everybody, and the only way you can do that is run low the whole time.
“It’s definitely a new strategy, but those guys are fast no matter what, so it’s not like they snuck up on us. We knew that was going to be one of the cars to beat there at the end. But it’s something to think about the next time we’re here.”
In fact, Gordon said the untaped portion of his grille was larger than Allmendinger’s.
“I don’t know anybody that ran fully taped,” Gordon said. “I will say the 22 (Allmendinger) and the 2 (Brad Keselowski) were the ones taped up the most that I saw. When the 22 ran as fast as he did, I looked at it and (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and I talked about it. We’re sitting there on the grid trying to figure out if we’re too far open, not open enough . . .
“Even on the line we were debating moments before I went out whether I run the high line or the bottom line.”
Clearly, Gordon made the right choice, giving him a step toward the 200th win for team owner Rick Hendrick, a goal that has eluded the organization so far this season.
Note: JJ Yeley failed to qualify for the 43-car field.