TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jeff Gordon led a Hendrick Motorsports rout in qualifying Saturday to win the pole for his final race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Gordon led teammates Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson in a sweep of the top three starting spots for the race Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified fifth to put the four Hendrick drivers in the first three rows at the 2.66-mile supserpseedway.
It was the best outcome for Gordon and Earnnhardt, the only two Hendrick drivers still in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. Both need strong runs — Earnhardt may actually need a victory — to advance into the third round of the playoffs.
Four drivers will be cut from the Chase field following the race. Gordon is seventh in the standings, while Earnhardt is 11th in the 12-driver field. Both drivers are six-time winners at Talladega, and Earnhardt won the spring race here.
"It is good enough," Earnhardt said about his starting position. "Some of the guys had a little more speed, but we feel like our car is going to race really well and just ready to go."
Matt Kenseth, who is last in the Chase field, qualified fourth. Like Earnhardt, he likely needs to win Sunday to move into the third round.
"One thing about Talladega is you always have to expect the unexpected, so who knows what's going to happen," Kenseth said. "Just anxious to get lined up for the race and see what happens."
Chase driver Martin Truex Jr. had his time thrown out by NASCAR as penalty for driving below the yellow line on the race track during his qualifying lap. Truex said he was unaware the rule — enforced during plate races — had been implemented for qualifying, too.
"Apparently there was a memo sent out, and I never got it," Truex said.
He'll start last in the 43-car field, but wasn't worried.
"We started in the back last time, too. We'll be fine," Truex said of the spring race in which he started 36th but finished fifth.
There was a bizarre mishap on pit road when NASCAR gave Clint Bowyer the signal to begin his lap. He revved his engine and unbeknownst to him, his car was in reverse and backed hard into Justin Allgaier's car.
Allgaier's car suffered enough damage that his crew had to make quick repairs to get him on track for his qualifying attempt, but will need to work on the Chevrolet some more to get it fixed to race Sunday.
Bowyer said it was the "strangest" thing he'd ever been part of in racing, and felt terrible for Allgaier and HScott Motorsports, the team Bowyer will drive for next season.
"Obviously it was in reverse," Bowyer said. "As soon as I let the clutch out, it was going the wrong way. I feel really, really bad. This is supposed to be an uneventful day, I just made it eventful."
Gordon, meanwhile, continued his domination in qualifying at restrictor-plate races this season. He won the pole at three of the four plate races this year. The one miss? At Daytona in July, when qualifying was rained out.
He heaped praise on the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports for the effort put into the plate races, where horsepower is so important.
"Everybody is contributing to make this happen, that is why we are 1-2-3 and 5," he said. "It's a great day for Hendrick Motorsports."
Gordon, who is retiring at the end of the season, is eager to get this final Talladega race behind him. Although he's been very good over the course of his career at Daytona and Talladega, he doesn't enjoy the white-knuckle racing that often leads to multi-car accidents.
NASCAR this week said it will make only one attempt at a green-white-checkered flag finish — all other events get three attempts to finish the race under green — in an effort to maintain safety standards during the frantic push to the checkered flag. Austin Dillon's car sailed into the fence on the last lap at Daytona in July, and NASCAR doesn't want to give drivers unnecessary opportunities to be aggressive.
Gordon applauded the move, which was used in Saturday's Truck Series race when there was just one attempt to finish the event and it ended under caution.
"There is a balance between the excitement and entertainment to give the fans what they came here for and putting drivers at risk," Gordon said. "If anyone in this (media) room rode inside one of these cars on a green-white-checkered, there's no doubt in my mind that every single one of you would say they really shouldn't do that. It's insane. If anyone in the garage says it's not, then they're not telling the truth. You're holding your breath.
"It can make for some amazing moments and highlights. I don't know if you need to put any added risk out there to do more than one."