MARTINSVILLE, Va. – When it came to who’ll start first in the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, ultimately it didn’t matter whether it rained or not on Friday.
Since Jeff Gordon is leading the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings, by 68 points over Jimmie Johnson and 78 over Clint Bowyer, a rainout would have meant lining up by the rulebook and that would have had Gordon on the pole.
Rain pushed things back and limited Cup practice to only about 10 minutes. Qualifying didn’t begin until 4:45 p.m. and it finally ended in fading light under thickening, ominous clouds.
Gordon had it covered either way. He ran a lap 94.974 mph to win his seventh pole of the season and the 63rd of his career.
“It was a tricky day,” said Gordon, who got three laps in qualifying trim in the abbreviated practice. Gordon said he thought it would take a lap faster than 19.9 seconds to win the pole. He only ran 19.938, and thought it wasn’t going to be enough.
“I went out thinking about running an ‘80’ and overdrove it into Turn 1,” Gordon said. “If felt like I really blew it.”
Gordon said he backed off a bit on his second lap, looking to just put up a solid time. That lap won him the No. 1 starting spot.
Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson – all three of whom are also in the Chase – will start next.
Bowyer will start 21st.
Martinsville never figured to be a place where anybody would make up major ground on Gordon anyway. The four-time champion’s record here is, simply put, sick.
Gordon has won here seven times. He has 17 top-five and 23 top-10 finishes in 29 starts, with an average finish of 7.3. He has finished ninth or better at this .526-mile track in his past nine tries, and in his career has completed 14,238 of a possible 14,356 possible laps here – 99.2 percent.
“We had a test here,” Gordon said. “I don't remember what year it was – 1994 or something like that – and just made a ton of laps and between the team working on trying to get the setup and me working on my line and getting it right.
“It was just like something ... clicked that day for me. It allowed me to change the way I drove this track from that point on.”
Gordon said that a big part of it is not doing what he felt like he did on his first qualifying lap, overdriving the car by hammering too hard into the flat, 90-degree turns at each end of the track.
“The speed all comes from the middle of the corner off, but it all starts with where you let off and how you get on the brakes getting into the corner,” Gordon said.
“When you figure it out, it allows the team to adjust the car in a totally different way. A lot of guys could maybe take my setup and go out there and go 'Oooh, I don't like this,' but unless you drive it just like I drive it, it's not going to work. Some guys might find ways to get a different setup to work just as good as ours, but for the way I drive the track the way that I found that worked for me, once I get into that rhythm.
“The funny thing, every time I come back here it takes me about eight to 10 laps to find that again. I go out there and I do the same thing that I always do and I go 'OK, whoa, whoa, slow it down, slow it down' and then - boom - and the lap times just start coming.”
Kasey Kahne will start fifth, with Chase driver Kyle Busch sixth. Dale Earnhardt Jr., J.J. Yeley, Jamie McMurray and Tony Raines round out the top 10.
As for the other Chase drivers, Kurt Busch will start 11th, Jeff Burton 18th, Carl Edwards 20th, Bowyer 21st, Matt Kenseth 24th, Denny Hamlin 30th and Tony Stewart 34th.
Sam Hornish Jr., Joe Nemechek, Brian Vickers, Jeremy Mayfield and Kevin Lepage failed to qualify.