RICHMOND, Va. — It’s a Hendrick Motorsports front row at Richmond International Raceway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole for tonight’s “regular-season” finale, turning a lap of 127.023 mph in his Chevrolet to bump teammate Jeff Gordon from the top starting spot.
“I was as surprised as anybody,” said Earnhardt, who won the 11th pole of his career.
It’s the first pole for NASCAR’s most popular driver since the 2011 Daytona 500.
It came at the expense of Gordon, who is trying to race his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Gordon wound up second, and was pleased with the effort.
“Mission accomplished,” he said.
Gordon needs a strong race tonight and a little bit of help to earn one of the two wild-card berths in the 12-driver Chase field. Although eight drivers go into the race mathematically eligible for the final two spots in the Chase field, the talk has focused on a battle between Gordon and Kyle Busch for the last slot.
Busch, a four-time Richmond winner who picked up his only victory this season here in May, qualified 15th. But Gordon knew that’s not far enough in the pack to not worry about Busch.
“In my opinion, it’s really Kyle’s to lose,” Gordon said. “For us, it’s really nothing to lose, everything to gain.”
Earnhardt is already locked into the Chase and is racing only for bonus points Saturday night. The Chase field will be re-seeded after the race, with everyone but the two wild-card drivers starting their title hunt with three bonus points per victory.
Earnhardt has one win this season.
The top seed will be Denny Hamlin, who has a series-best four wins this season and is coming off consecutive victories the last two weeks. He qualified 11th and has said all week his focus Saturday night will be in helping teammate Busch make the Chase.
But Hamlin could be joined by another driver in a tie for the top seed: five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and defending champion Tony Stewart are all tied with three wins this season. If one of them wins at Richmond, they’ll tie Hamlin with 12 bonus points to open the Chase.
Regan Smith, not eligible for the Chase, qualified third and was followed by Chase drivers Clint Bowyer and Johnson. Sprint Cup Series points leader Greg Biffle qualified 23rd.