Jeff Gordon signs an autograph Friday at Richmond International Raceway in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo)
RICHMOND, Va. — Jeff Gordon will try to race his way into NASCAR’s playoffs from the pole position.
The four-time series champion turned a track-record qualifying lap of 130.599 mph at Richmond International Raceway on Friday night to win his 73rd career pole position, and his first this season.
“I can breathe now,” Gordon joked after seeing the time hold up.
His lap pushed Kurt Busch to the outside of the front row, meaning the tension win be palpable once the green flag drops Saturday night for the 400-lap race around the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval.
Busch is 10th in points, and the top 10 after Saturday night’s race earn automatic berths in the 10-race playoffs to finish the season. Gordon is 11th, six points behind, and needs to pass Busch or one of the other drivers now in the top 10 to assure himself a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
In all, 10 drivers are fighting for the last five spots.
“There’s no doubt we all recognize what’s on the line here,” Gordon said.
The pole extended to 21 Gordon’s NASCAR-record string of consecutive seasons with a pole position, breaking a tie with David Pearson, and gave him the No. 1 pit stall on the frontstretch at RIR.
“I didn’t think it was going to come this year. I’ll be honest,” Gordon said of the top starting spot. “Qualifying has not been very good for me and for our team this year. Very proud of this one. Boy, it comes at a great time. ... We know how important that number one pit stall is and starting up front.”
Busch, the 2004 series champion, rallied after being 19th fastest in practice, possible with the help of cloud cover that moved in front of the sun just as he was wheeling onto the track for his run.
“We will take the cloud cover and we will take those adjustments we made,” Busch said, adding that “we just threw a couple of things at it, and it stuck. ... That lap came out of nowhere. Awesome lap.”
Defending series champion Brad Keselowski, who is 15th in points and still has a remote chance of racing his way into the Chase, will start third, followed by Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth.
Bowyer and Kenseth are among the drivers already locked into the Chase, meaning all eyes will be on the front once the race starts, with Gordon and Busch no doubt battling to lead the first lap, or any lap, to gain a bonus point that could prove critical as the race winds down under the lights.
“It depends on what everybody’s attitude and goals are,” Gordon said of the tone that could be set right away. “This is a long race. You’ve got to be smart. We found that out last year.”
In 2012, Gordon arrived at RIR still needing to lock up a spot in the playoffs, went a lap down early on and kept battling. He eventually rallied to finish second and made it into the Chase field.
Busch, too, said getting to the finish in good shape is what will matter most.
“We want to make sure we pace ourselves, do the right thing,” he said. “We are feeling good about this. I love these challenges and right now, Gordon and I are one-two.”