Jeff Gordon claimed pole for his final Daytona 500, but only after a bad-tempered and controversial qualifying session for the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup opener.
This year the traditional one-at-a-time Daytona 500 qualifying format has been abandoned in favour of the Formula 1-style group knockout sessions adopted at all other events last year. Four five-minute segments were held, with the field split in two for the opening pair, and the fastest 24 cars on combined times then progressing to round two, from where the top 12 went into the pole shootout.
Drivers had already expressed misgivings about the prospect of group qualifying at Daytona, and their fears were realized in the first session, when contact between a furious Clint Bowyer and Reed Sorenson triggered a heavy accident in which Denny Hamlin and JJ Yeley also became embroiled.
After a long stoppage, the clock was restarted for the remaining 1m22s but none of the cars that went back out managed to get to the line in time to run a flying lap.
The second group had a less eventful session, and, unsurprisingly went faster, pushing group one pacesetter Hamlin – who had gone quickest before the accident – down to 11th in combined times as Aric Almirola led the way.
Reigning champion Kevin Harvick and his Stewart-Haas teammates Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick, plus 2014 title contender Ryan Newman and the sidelined Bowyer were among those who failed to make the cut.
Round two was topped by Jimmie Johnson, with Team Penske drivers the biggest names to miss out this time, as Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano only managed 19th and 21st.
With everyone well aware that the fastest place to be was the rear of a drafting pack, drivers were reluctant to leave the pits first throughout the session. This was taken to an extreme in round three, where it briefly looked like few of the 12 contenders would make it across the line in time to even set a lap, but all made it with seconds to spare.
Gordon’s 201.293mph, 44.711-second lap proved quickest of the single-lap pack run that ensued, with his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson joining him on the front row with a lap 0.035s adrift.
Three Joe Gibbs Toyota followed the Hendrick Chevrolets: Hamlin managed third ahead of Saturday night’s Unlimited race winner Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. Their new teammate Carl Edwards was seventh behind Hendrick’s Kasey Kahne.
Only Gordon and Johnson’s positions are now set for next Sunday’s 500. The rest of the grid order will be decided by Thursday’s Duel qualifying races.