BROOKLYN, Mich. - As Jeff Gordon sped around the Michigan International Speedway during pole qualifying Friday, it was hard to distinguish his Chevrolet Monte Carlo from any of the other cars in his race shop.
It was hard to believe he was driving the same car that was involved in a fender-bender two weeks ago during the Coca-Cola 600 near Charlotte has his lap time flahsed across the infield scoring tower.
A fast lap of 188.250 mph not only won the pole position for Sunday's Kmart 400, it was a high-speed testament to the guys in the scratch and dent department of Hendrick Motorsports.
"This is the same car we bent fender at Charlotte," Gordon said. "The guys took it back to the shop and fixed it. Actually, I think they made it better."
The same car that was knocked pigeon-toed by a run-in with Kenny Wallace during a routine pit stop was never better as it roared around the two-mile raceway. Gordon set the pace midway into the session, then he watched the final hour of time trials on television as every challenge came up short.
A week ago, the car sat wrinkled at the shop. The team's chassis, engineering and body shop workers came to work last Saturday -- their day off -- to overhaul the car known simply as "2453."
"The guys are so fired up right now, it didn't bother any of them to work last Saturday," said crew chief Robbie Loomis. "When you're running this good, everyone gets excited."
Gordon's team has 14 cars in the shop. But only a couple earn a reputation for being a favorite. Car 2453 lost a photo finish to Kevin Harvick at Atlanta earlier this season, then it finished fifth at Texas and second at California. The wreck at Charlotte resulted in a 29th-place finish, meaning when it doesn't crash, 2453 has never been out of the top five.
A dominating victory last week at Dover, Del., coupled with two second-place finishes in his last four races has propelled Gordon to within 50 of Dale Jarrett's lead in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings.
"These days, especially at a track like Michigan, 80 percent of it is the car and 20 percent is the driver," Gordon said of the balance required to run wide open. "You have to understand what it takes to put a car out there. There's no doubt the reason I signed the contract I signed with Hendrick Motorsports was because I believed in this team."
Gordon has a lifetime deal with car owner Rick Hendrick. And in return, Hendrick has given the driver a piece of the race team.
"As long as I've got a good starting position somewhere near the front, that's what's important," Gordon said. "This says a lot about this race team right now."
Ricky Rudd, the last driver to attempt qualifying, put a scare into Gordon's top spot with a lap of 188.240 mph.
Mike Skinner was third-fastest at 187.691 and Dave Blaney was fourth at 187.671. Ricky Craven was fifth at 187.637, followed by Bill Elliott in sixth at 187.476, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in seventh at 187.456, Harvick in eighth at 187.441, Jeremy Mayfield in ninth at 187.339 and Johnny Benson in 10th at 187.110.
Jarrett qualified 21st at 186.225 mph, while Shawna Robinson became the first woman since 1989 to make the starting lineup of a Winston Cup Series race with a lap of 185.529 mph to start 32nd.
Although the damage to Gordon's car at Charlotte proved to be cosmetic, it changed the driving characteristics of the car. The team stripped the body away, checked the frame and chassis, then rebuilt the body to the same specifications as before the race.
"That front-right fender is so important because that's the first thing that hits the air," Loomis said. "The angle of the fenders are critical. If they're off an eighth of an inch, it completely changes the car."
The same crewmen who rebuilt Gordon's car put the finishing touches on a new car that's scheduled to debut next week at Pocono, Pa.
"You try to make every car you've got to be consistent with the other cars in the shop, but they're all going to be a just a little different," Loomis said. "That makes one a little better for one place and another a little better at another place."
Even if you can't tell the difference.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com
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