Redemption-minded Gordon earns pole for 3M Performance 300


Jeff Gordon came to Michigan International Raceway with a sizable lead in the Nextel Cup points race and a secure spot in the Chase for the Cup playoff that could lead to his fifth title in NASCAR's top series.

But Gordon also arrived intent on making up for a mistake that cost him a victory last week.

He took the first step toward redemption Friday by winning the pole position for the 3M Performance 400 on Sunday. It's the fifth time he's won the first starting spot on the two-mile oval here, where he's won the race twice.

Gordon drove a late-afternoon lap of 189.026 mph in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. It helped that he was the last driver to qualify for the 43-car field as temperatures cooled and the track gained more "grip," or traction, which provided cars more speed.

Indeed, the driver who went out right before him, Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing, qualified second in his Ford at 188.684 mph.

"That late draw really, really played out for us," as did adjustments made to his car's tire pressure after practice earlier in the day, said Gordon, a native of Vallejo, Calif. "I wasn't as wide open as I thought was needed to get the pole."

Former Michigan winners Kasey Kahne of Gillett Evernham Motorsports and Bobby Labonte of Petty Enterprises qualified third and fourth, respectively, both in Dodges.

Gordon was leading last week's race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., with only two laps left when he lost control on a turn and spun out. That opened the door for Tony Stewart of Joe Gibbs Racing to post his third win in the last four races.

Gordon was furious with himself after the race, and said Friday that he continued kicking himself most of the week. "I don't like to make mistakes, even though we all make mistakes," he said. "When the team puts me in a position to win, we need to win.

"I want to make it up to them," Gordon continued. "My way of making it up to them is to come to the track prepared. I'm just glad to be back at the racetrack."

Gordon's pole also marked a bright return for his crew chief, Steve Letarte. Letarte and Chad Knaus, crew chief for Gordon teammate and reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, were suspended for six races after NASCAR ruled that their cars broke aerodynamic rules at the race in Sonoma in June.

"I'm back at Michigan and it really doesn't matter what's happened the last six weeks," Letarte said before qualifying. Sunday's race is crucial because only four races remain to decide which 12 drivers qualify for the Chase, the 10-race playoff that determines the series champion.

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Races here also carry extra weight for most NASCAR teams because the track is near the U.S. auto manufacturers' headquarters in Detroit, about an hour's drive east. The speedway itself is in the rural, bucolic Irish Hills of southern Michigan.

Sunday's race also is a tuneup for the Sept. 2 race at California Speedway in Fontana, a two-mile track nearly identical to the Michigan speedway.

"But (Fontana) is still a different type of racetrack," with flatter corners and a bumpier first turn, said Labonte, the 2000 Cup champion. "It's a lot harder for me to get around than Michigan is."

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