NASCAR • Wild card spots up for grabs in last pre-Chase race.
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Richmond, Va. • It's a Hendrick Motorsports front row at Richmond International Raceway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the pole for Saturday night's "regular-season" finale, turning a lap of 127.023 mph in his Chevrolet to bump teammate Jeff Gordon from the top starting spot.
"I was as surprised as anybody," said Earnhardt, who won the 11th pole of his career. "It feels good. I've not really been the best of qualifiers the last couple of years. We have a lot of improvements we've made this year. It feels good to get a pole."
It's the first pole for NASCAR's most popular driver since the 2011 Daytona 500.
It came at the expense of Gordon, who is trying to race his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Gordon wound up second, and was pleased with the effort.
"Mission accomplished," he said.
Gordon needs a strong race Saturday night and a little bit of help to earn one of the two wild-card berths in the 12-driver Chase field. Although eight drivers go into the race mathematically eligible for the final two spots in the Chase field, the talk has focused on a battle between Gordon and Kyle Busch for the last slot.
Busch, a four-time Richmond winner who picked up his only victory this season here in May, qualified 15th. But Gordon knew that's not far enough in the pack to not worry about Busch.
"In my opinion, it's really Kyle's to lose," Gordon said. "For us, it's really nothing to lose, everything to gain."
Earnhardt is already locked into the Chase and is racing only for bonus points Saturday night. The Chase field will be re-seeded after the race, with everyone but the two wild-card drivers starting their title hunt with three bonus points per victory.
Earnhardt has one win this season.
"I think everybody wants to get the win to kick the Chase off, and go into the Chase with a lot of confidence," Earnhardt said.
The top seed will be Denny Hamlin, who has a series-best four wins this season and goes into his home track coming off consecutive victories the last two weeks. He qualified 11th and has said all week his focus Saturday night will be in helping Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch make the Chase.
But Hamlin could be joined by another driver in a tie for the top seed: five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and defending champion Tony Stewart are all tied with three wins this season. If one of them wins at Richmond, they'll tie Hamlin with 12 bonus points to open the Chase.
Hamlin, a two-time winner here, isn't ruling out stretching his lead with yet another victory. He's coming off wins at Bristol and Atlanta.
"I think we've got a great shot at three in a row," Hamlin said. "We've just got to keep it going."
Regan Smith, not eligible for the Chase, qualified third and was followed by Chase drivers Clint Bowyer and Johnson. Sprint Cup Series points leader Greg Biffle qualified 23rd in a rough day for Ford drivers.
Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, Biffle's Roush Fenway Racing teammates, qualified 16th and 17th. Edwards, who lost the championship to Stewart last season on a tie-breaker, is clinging to the outside possibility of making the Chase. He's winless this year, although a late penalty for jumping the restart cost him the win here in May.
He said he's rooting for "an insane race" Saturday night.
"I want things to just be off the chart. I want rain delays and oil on the track. I want things to happen," he said. "I need this race to be insane. I need people running out of fuel and crazy cautions and four-wide down in turn one. That's what I need and I'll take whatever I can get."
That's exactly what Busch doesn't want to happen.
"I hope it's not crazy," he said this week. "If I had my way, I'd just as soon see somebody already in the Chase win the race and I finish second."
Busch can clinch a berth by winning the race, or by losing 12 or fewer points to Gordon.
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