Polesitter Jeff Gordon talks with the media at Bristol Motor Speedway Friday.
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BRISTOL, Tenn. - One of the biggest wholesale changes implemented by NASCAR did not prevent a familiar face from capturing a pole at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday.
Jeff Gordon qualified first for the Food City 500 - his fifth Cup pole at Bristol but his first in the Car of Tomorrow, which makes its competitive debut in Sunday's race after months of buildup and testing.
The prelude to the CoT's debut has seen proponents and critics, with Gordon falling in the latter category. In spite of his misgivings, he traversed the half-mile in 15.295 seconds, hitting a speed of 125.453 mph and besting Kasey Kahne (15.312/125.313 mph) to take the pole.
Gordon tied Bobby Allison for fifth on NASCAR's all-time career pole list at 58.
"Have I mentioned how much I love the Car of Tomorrow?" Gordon quipped as he began his post-qualifying media session.
"I'm a little shocked to be on the pole right now, but I am happy. Today was a much better feel than what we had testing."
The rigid technical specifications put in place have made it even more difficult for all the Nextel Cup teams, who essentially have been forced back to the drawing board to figure out how best to set up the Car of Tomorrow for competition. And, as rookies and veterans alike know, competition at Bristol is unique.
"It's Bristol. Things are going to happen," Kahne said. "If you go too slow here and try to take care of your stuff, you're going to get spun out from behind. People don't care about you too much here."
Elliott Sadler, Kahne's teammate at Evernham Motorsports, qualified third. Sadler said his crew completely abandoned its practice setup, using information from Kahne to make changes before qualifying.
"We came here with a certain package and the 9 came with a certain package and ours wasn't working," Sadler said. "Pretty much everything that bolts on a race car we changed."
The Car of Tomorrow, with its wider body, large rear spoiler, new splitter and greatly reduced downforce, stands out as one of the biggest changes to hit the sport in recent years - maybe ever. Despite his strong run Friday, Gordon seemed to prefer what Sadler jokingly called the "Car of Yesterday."
"I've said the whole time, whether I like the car or not, we're going to do everything we can to be competitive," said Gordon who has five wins at BMS. "I'm proud of that effort.
"That might teach some people some things about me: Just because I don't like something doesn't mean I'm not going to work hard at it."
Lots of hard work is required. During Nextel Cup practice, it was common to see a car get squirrelly in the corners or nearly spin out, something Gordon attributed to the diminished downforce.
How will those issues affect matters once there are 43 cars crammed into the tight confines of BMS? No one will know until Sunday.
Tony Stewart joined Sadler on the second row, with Jamie McMurray and defending Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson behind them.
Dave Blaney qualified seventh to give the struggling Toyota faction a boost. Two more Toyota drivers, A.J. Allmendinger and Jeremy Mayfield, made their first Cup race of the season.
Ward Burton put the Morgan-McClure team's Chevrolet in the field with a solid 14th-place qualifying effort.
And the U.S. Army Chevy qualified 12th, which would be good news for points leader Mark Martin if he chose to compete. But Martin - sticking to his vow to no longer race full time - is not in the field. Sliding into the seat of the No. 1 car was Regan Smith, who aims to keep Martin's car first in owner points.
Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, last year's Food City 500 winner, were two of three drivers who made the field on owner points due to poor qualifying runs.