Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted his first career pole at Richmond on Friday.
“I’m surprised as anybody,” Junior said after scoring his 11th career Sprint Cup pole in 461 races.
But it was advantage Jeff Gordon, who qualified second. Gordon desperately needs a solid finish on Saturday to leapfrog over fellow wild-card contenders in the Federated Auto Parts 400 to earn the 12th and final NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup spot.
The No. 24 team trails Kyle Busch, who is 12th in the point standings, by 12 points. With Gordon rolling off 13 spots ahead of the No. 18 team, Gordon’s already off to a good start.
But it’s just the beginning.
"I feel like we have a couple of different jobs,” Gordon said. “Number one is just win the race, right? That’s our job every weekend. But we need to put pressure on our competitors — pressure on the guys we are going to have to beat to win this race, as well as pressure on the guys we are battling with to make this Chase.
"Certainly he [Busch] is one of those guys. So I do feel like we’re in a good position to get a good pit stall.
“As good as our car was today, to be able to start up front, those are all great positives. We never go out there focused on one other individual. We go out there focused on our job, and what we have to do to win the race. That is what we plan on doing. We know that Kyle is going to be strong in this race. But we’re going to try to keep the pressure on him and the other guys that we are battling with out there."
Busch insists it’s a two-man race between himself and Gordon for the final wild-card transfer spot into the Chase. Gordon is more realistic. He knows that a second victory by Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman or Joey Logano can knock him — and Busch — out of contention.
Yet after the problems and engine failures Gordon has endured in 2012, he’s grateful to be making a late-season charge.
“I’m just thankful we have performed as well as we have the last couple of weeks to give ourselves a shot,” Gordon said. “We could go back through our season and look at many different races of what we could have done different. It’s not the way racing works. I’m very proud of the effort this team has put forth.
“Especially today. To me, this race is won today. And, I felt like we really put a winning effort out there today, and it is going to pay off for us tomorrow [Saturday] night. Yes, it is going to be intense. But once the green flag drops, your focus is going to be racing, and trying to get everything we can out of it."
Not only must Gordon contend with the wild-card candidates, there’s also the 10 drivers locked into the Chase who would benefit by the additional three bonus points that would accompany a win when the points are recalculated after Richmond.
Certainly, polesitter Dale Jr. is among them. When Earnhardt was told of Gordon’s take-no-prisoners strategy for Saturday, he acknowledged the crowd reaction “would be quite big” if his teammate dumped him for the win.
Yet after tangling with the four-time champ on multiple occasions, he won’t be surprised.
“And if I was in the same situation, I would have a hard time not doing the same thing,” Earnhardt said. “Everybody wants to win races regardless of the situation going into the Chase … you’re not thinking about that stuff when you’re in the car and you’ve been racing for 400 miles.
"You’re not thinking about all these situations that other drivers are in; you’re just wanting to win for yourself."
“You’ve been running all night. Your team has worked all night. You’ve done everything you can to put yourself in position and you’ve got to make a split decision in that corner, if you can reach the guy, to move him or not move him. You make that decision, you know? You might regret it somewhat if you don’t do it or do it or whatever. I don’t know.
“It depends on what kind of person you are. You come here to win, and your team builds a car and sets a car up and works on it all week to win the race, not to roll over for anybody, no matter what. So, I would think that regardless of the individuals involved, if there are two guys within reach of each other on the last lap, something’s going to happen. I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
60 — Races since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last pole.
787 — Laps led by Kevin Harvick in the Nationwide Series in 2012 (the most for the tour) after competing in just 11 races.
12 — Cautions ignited by Danica Patrick in 25 Nationwide races this season.
While Kevin Harvick acknowledges that he’s a kinder, gentler individual after fatherhood, he added following his win on Friday night, “I still want to punch Kyle Busch.”