Racing on Saturday meant qualifying on Thursday this week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship and Jeff Gordon took the opportunity to grab pole position for the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his 69th pole placing him joint third with Cale Yarborough in the all time list.
It was also Gordon’s eighth pole at Charlotte in thirty-six starts, although his last was in October 2000, and breaks a run of 32 races without top spot at the start giving him hope that he could break his 59 race winless streak. In his past six races at Charlotte the #24 Du Pont Chevrolet has had five top ten finishes including one win but recently has been struggling to get any significant results, just one top 5 in the past eleven weeks. He didn’t help his cause last week at Fontana with a pit-lane speeding penalty and needs to avoid needless errors.
Carl Edwards was one of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford drivers to suffer mechanical maladies at Fontana, ending a run of ten top-ten finishes in the past twelve races. He has never won at Charlotte but has finished in the top ten in two-thirds of his visits and is capable of taking the checkered flag first here.
The rest of the top five in qualifying are non Chase drivers who have all been showing well in the past few races, A J Allmendinger, Mark Martin and Paul Menard taking third to fifth spots. Martin gained extra track time on Wednesday during a practice day for runners in the Nationwide Series. Friday’s Dollar General 300 race will be the fourth and last time this year that the teams will run the new car which will become the full time car in 2011 and Martin was helping Danica Patrick‘s GoDaddy #7 team get some baseline feedback and telemetry for the car in his efforts to assist Patrick as she adapts to the NASCAR series.
Menard is slowly shaking off his rich kid reputation with his performances. He doesn’t look ready for a trip to Victory Lane just yet but has been consistently running in top ten places in the past few races. His rich daddy might sponsor the car for him but it’s driving skill, not dollars, that keep you in top ten running and there is no reason he shouldn’t figure in the results again this week.
Of the teams in The Chase again the Richard Childress Racing seemed to struggle in qualifying with their cars taking 18th,20th and 24th places, Jeff Burton ahead of Clint Bowyer and, bringing up the rear again, Kevin Harvick. Up to the start of The Chase Harvick had been leading the standings for twenty of the 26 races. Clearly he can bring the car home in regular top five and top ten places but he nearly always has to fight his way there from back in the pack. His four qualifying positions in The Chase so far this year have been 27th, 33rd, 24th and 21st. He last had a pole in July at Daytona, a race he went on to win, and it is hard to know whether he simply cannot qualify well or whether he prefers to concentrate instead on getting the #29 Shell/Pennzoil car right for the happy hour practice thus getting the set-up right for the race.
Bowyer in the #33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet is, of course, getting used to a changed Crew Chief as Shane Wilson serves his suspension, but his first race with Scott Miller in the seat saw Bowyer running strong all race long and believing he could have taken the win if it hadn’t been for a caution period with 16 laps left to run. Miller, RCR’s director of competition, was, before his promotion, Crew Chief for Jeff Burton so knew what he had to do – once he had made a checklist for himself as he eased his way back into working with a race team again.
Another poor qualifier was last week’s winner of the Pepsi Max 400 at Fontana, Tony Stewart, who will start back in 29th place. The #14 car has been fast at every track bar Dover in the past four weeks and Stewart is convinced he can compete for wins at all the remaining tracks. If he hadn’t run out of fuel in the first race at Loudon and followed that at Dover with a pit-lane speeding penalty he could easily have been a title contender. He knows that and is fighting to get himself in the position where he can gain from the misfortune of others.
Without any doubt the man to watch for on Saturday is championship leader, Jimmie Johnson in the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet who is the most successful current driver at Charlotte with six previous wins. He has also led the last seventeen consecutive races here and finished in the top three in the last three races in this year’s Chase. He has extended his championship lead and whilst he might settle for another top five place rather than race for the win to safeguard his lead you can be sure that barring any bad luck or calamity he will be in the reckoning come the end of the 500.