DAYTONA BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Jeff Gordon held off team mate Jimmie Johnson to take the pole for the final Daytona 500 of his career on Sunday.
Gordon, a three-time winner of the race, had announced earlier this would be his final full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series, and he began the season with a bang.
“I can't think of anything cooler than to start this season, the Daytona 500, my final Daytona 500, final full season, on the pole. “ Gordon, who won the race from the pole in 1999, told reporters.
For the first time, drivers vying for spots in the 43-car field in next Sunday's race went out in groups rather than single car qualifying.
As a result of the aerodynamic effect of running in packs, Gordon turned a quick lap of 201.293 mph. It was the first time since 1987 that drivers exceeded the 200 mph in qualifying for NASCAR’s top event.
“This is one of the most gratifying poles here at Daytona that I have ever had," the four-time NASCAR series champion said. "Not just because my final Daytona 500, but because you have to try to plan it out and you have to try to play that chess match and we played it really well.”
Johnson a two-time 500 winner, knew he had a quick time after a lap at 201.135 mph but was not sure he could win the pole.
“We knew what the risks were,” Johnson, who will start next to Gordon, told reporters. “In order to get the pole, you've got to take a big chance. We were willing to take the risk and gamble to be there.”
The remainder of the 43-car starting grid will be determined after twin 150-mile qualifying races on Thursday.
Editing by Gene Cherry