Jeff Gordon qualifies 21st as he subs in for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr.

ByBob Pockrass ESPN logo
Sunday, July 24, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS - Jeff Gordon typically would leave frustrated after qualifying 21st for a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But in a substitute role driving for a crew he has never worked with before, he left the track Saturday a little disappointed but much calmer than he was a day earlier when he stepped into a race car for the first time in eight months.

Gordon, filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr.(concussion-type symptoms) for the next two races, said he got loose going into Turn 1 in the second round of qualifying for the Brickyard 400, resulting in his starting spot in the middle of the 40-car field.

"I'm much calmer than I was [Friday]," Gordon said after his lap at 181.851 mph. "Usually, my heart is beating more for qualifying than it is for practice. But that wasn't the case [in practice].

"I feel more relaxed and comfortable in the car."

Defending winner Kyle Busch (184.634 mph) will start from the pole Sunday with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards (184.547 mph) beside him.

Tony Stewart (184.328 mph), competing in his final Brickyard 400 as he plans to retire after this season, will start third.

Gordon thought his last Brickyard was last year, but now being thrust into the substitute role at Hendrick Motorsports has challenged the four-time Sprint Cup champion.

"I feel really good about the things we learned [Friday] at the end of practice," Gordon said. "I would have liked to have started further forward. We've got some work to do and I look forward to the challenge."

A five-time Brickyard 400 champion, Gordon said he will keep his expectations realistic. He won't talk about potentially winning a record sixth race at Indianapolis.

"It's a steep learning curve to be off the track this long and jump in here, but luckily I have a great race car and great race team that is going to help me get through it," Gordon said.

The car has good speed, Gordon said, and the one thing that doesn't change is his approach to the race.

"I drive the car into the corner and the car gives me feedback and if it feels good, I drive it harder," Gordon said. "If it doesn't feel good, I find a way to manage it until we can make adjustments or I can make an adjustment. ... My goal is to make the car as fast as it can go."

That goal is pretty standard. For Busch, he won his first pole at Indianapolis and had one of the cars to beat for the pole.

"We set the fast time in practice and that gave me a little extra vote of confidence," Busch said. "You never know what happens overnight with guys making changes and adjustments. For us, it was really good to back that up."

For the fans, it was probably more exciting to see the Indiana native Stewart having a good weekend in his last Brickyard experience. His year started with a broken back, missing eight races.

"The cars are just driving better," said Stewart, who is working with first-year crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. "It seems like the communication between us each week is just getting easier and easier. It's hard when you spot these guys eight races at the beginning of the season to get caught up, but we're making a good run at that."