LOUDON, N.H. — On Nov. 15, 1992, Jeff Gordon made his first career Cup appearance. At the time, Brad Keselowski was 8 years old.
As the Chase’s wise old man, Gordon acknowledges the fortune required, starting on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, to close the 47-point gap that Keselowski has opened after one segment of the 10-show Chase.
“It’s going to have to be pretty extraordinary. Right next to miraculous,” the 41-year-old Gordon, currently in 12th place, said of grabbing the position Keselowski holds. “Miraculous things have happened. That’s what keeps us motivated and keeps us going forward — that anything can happen. Crazier things have happened.”
Winning the pole is a start.
On Friday, Gordon blistered the NHMS pavement with the field’s fastest lap. Gordon clocked a speed of 134.911 miles per hour to nose past Kyle Busch (134.753), turning NHMS into his personal stretch of Storrow Drive.
“That was a great lap,” Gordon said.
Earlier Friday, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson weren’t sure the No. 24 Chevrolet had much life in its tires. For most of the 90-minute practice, Gordon drove the Impala in race trim. It wasn’t very fast. Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota Camry was the strongest.
After 23 so-so practice laps, Gustafson informed Gordon to retreat to the garage. The team scrapped the race setup. Gustafson switched over to qualifying trim — more weight in the nose, higher pressures in the Goodyears — and sent Gordon back onto the track.
With just one spin around the track, the No. 24 team finally found some speed. Gordon submitted the second-fastest practice lap (134.174) after Hamlin (134.820).
In qualifying, Gordon only hit 132.379 on his first lap. Gordon wasn’t worried. He usually treats his first lap as a throat-clearing.
On the second lap, Gordon bellowed.
Gordon planted the Chevy into Turn 1. The car rotated smoothly through the corner. Gordon hit the gas and swept through Turn 2. Gordon mashed the gas, barreled down the back straightaway, and drove deep into Turn 3. As Gordon curled through Turns 3 and 4, the car rolled just right. When Gordon sprinted over the start/finish line, he thought it was a good lap.
When Gordon beat Busch’s time and Hamlin posted the 32d-fastest time, good turned into perfect.
It was the kind of fast lap the No. 24 required after last week’s flameout. Gordon wrecked out of the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. Gordon completed only 190 of 267 laps.
Gordon’s shot at the Cup is whisker-thin, which is more than he can say about the mustache — he pledged to grow one if he made the Chase — he shaved off after his 35th-place Chicagoland finish.
As grim as its chances might be, the team still had to complete its usual postrace debriefing on Tuesday. Gordon, Gustafson, and the team dissected its Chicagoland performance. But they quickly switched to their Loudon plans.
“My confidence wasn’t the issue or the team’s,” Gordon said. “We were running fourth when we wrecked last week. Confidence is broken when you’re running 25th. That’s the thing that’s really gotten us through the whole season. We’ve had a lot of problems that have been frustrating. We had to battle through them. But our cars have been really fast. It keeps your confidence as a driver, knowing you can rebound and you can get to the next track.”
Despite claiming the pole, Gordon isn’t out of trouble. Gordon will lead the field when Sunday’s race goes green. How long he can stay there remains to be seen.
The concern is how the No. 24 sputtered for most of Friday’s practice. The team will have to find answers in Saturday’s final practice. to make the car hum on Sunday.
“I’m hoping we can find something in this qualifying setup that works more than the race setup,” Gordon said. “It’s quite a bit different than the race setup we had earlier.”
If Gustafson can’t unearth the correct setup, the rest of the pack will be clanging on Gordon’s bumper. Busch, who’ll start alongside Gordon, has nothing to lose. As a non-Chaser, Busch doesn’t have to race conservatively. Busch has his sights set on a checkered flag instead of a trouble-free result.
Tony Stewart (third fastest in qualifying), only 8 points behind Keselowski, will also be strong. Chasers Kasey Kahne (fifth in points, sixth fastest in qualifying) and Martin Truex Jr. (ninth in points, ninth in qualifying) will start among the top 10 Sunday. Keselowski qualified 15th.
Track position will be key on the 1.058-mile circuit.
“It’s hard to get heat in the tires on a short run,” Gordon said. “You really slide around a lot. You can really lose positions on restarts if you’re not careful. To maintain that track position on cold tires is hard to do. By qualifying up front, we’ll have track position early. We’ll fight hard to keep it.”
Josh Wise’s No. 26 Ford Fusion failed postrace inspection. The gas pressure in the rear shocks exceeded legal limits. David Stremme, who didn’t qualify, will start 43d.