DARLINGTON, S.C. – Jeff Gordon left his car with hands shaking and heart pounding after another harrowing experience at Darlington Raceway.
Gordon’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, three-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, wasn’t as lucky qualifying Friday, crashing before he could finish his lap.
“This is a nail-biter, white-knuckle experience qualifying here,” said Gordon, who’ll start second Saturday night in the Southern 500.
Matt Kenseth set a track record to win his first pole since 2005, his 179.514 mph eclipsing Greg Biffle’s mark from a year ago. Gordon marveled at Kenseth’s record-setting performance at the track “Too Tough To Tame.”
“You’ve got to push really hard. You’ve got to be committed,” Gordon said. “This track is narrow. It’s got a lot of grip, but the edge is right there. It’s really easy to break loose.”
That’s what happened to Johnson, a two-time winner at Darlington. His No. 48 Chevrolet slid in turn two, the back end crunching the wall then the front side bounding into an interior wall and coming to a stop.
Johnson’s crew ran out to help. He was taken to the infield care center for evaluation and released a short time later.
Johnson said that just before his lap, crew chief Chad Knaus’ “final words were, ‘Go like hell,’ and off I went and didn’t make it back.”
Johnson qualified on owner’s points and will start 42nd, his worst opening spot in 11 career Cup races at Darlington.
“I hate that happened to Jimmie,” Gordon said. “I know they’ve got another great car in the truck. They’re a championship caliber team. They’ll rebound, I’m sure, in a big way.”
Kenseth’s hopes his fourth career pole – and first since Kansas in October 2005 – leads to a rebound in confidence.
He won the Daytona 500 and then the next week at Auto Club Speedway in Los Angeles. However, he’s just one top 10 finish in the past eight races.
Kenseth had felt good during practice, then came an afternoon rain that threatened to wash off much of the grip Sprint Cup drivers had spent the morning laying down.
To Kenseth’s surprise, his car held its line and led to the quickest lap in Darlington’s 60-season history.
“It’s the most confident I’ve been in my car since, I don’t know,” Kenseth said.
Ryan Newman qualified third, followed by improving Sam Hornish Jr. and Darlington first-timer Joey Logano.