BROOKLYN, Mich. — Calling the car that he drove in qualifying for the Pure Michigan 400 “phenomenal,” Jeff Gordon set a track qualifying record of 206.558 miles an hour Friday to win the pole for Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
“I was a little unsure of what we were going to have during qualifying from the car,” said Gordon, who qualified ahead of Joey Logano (206.381) and Carl Edwards (206.115). “The first [qualifying session] I just didn’t get all of it. The car was there and had more speed and grip but I wasn’t sure how aggressive I could be. When I felt that, I was pretty excited.”
Gordon, Logano, and Edwards were three of seven drivers who bested Kevin Harvick’s June qualifying record of 204.557 miles an hour, joining Brian Vickers, Brad Keselowski, Harvick, and Paul Menard.
Friday’s knockout qualifying speeds, however, were secondary to the noted absence of Tony Stewart. Stewart-Haas Racing announced Thursday that Stewart will not compete in the wake of the death of Kevin Ward, Jr., in a sprint car accident last weekend in Canandaigua, N.Y.
Stewart-Haas Racing representatives said Friday that no timetable has been set for Stewart to return to driving in the Sprint Cup, and no decision has been made for when Stewart will return.
Jeff Burton will drive in place of Stewart in the Pure Michigan 400 and qualified 27th on Friday. Burton, 47, has won 21 Sprint Cup races since 1993 but has only driven in two races this season, finishing 17th in March at Las Vegas and 20th in July at New Hampshire. He will retire at the end of this season to become an auto racing analyst for NBC.
"My role here is to hopefully provide a little stability and give the team the most success they can have in a very difficult situation," Burton said prior to qualifying. "Hopefully me being here in some kind of way can help a healing process start.
Brett Frood, Stewart-Haas Racing's executive vice president, reiterated that the decision not to drive this weekend rested with Stewart, and did not disclose Stewart’s location for this weekend.
"He's grieving," Frood said. "He made the decision he's not ready to get in the race car. It's going to be up to Tony when he gets back in the car.”
In the wake of the on-track accident involving Stewart and Ward’s death, NASCAR announced Friday that it has formalized its on-track incident procedure for competition, requiring drivers to follow safety guidelines, including remaining in their cars after crashes.
“This rule is really put in place for the safety of all of our competitors,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development. “It's safety first right now. We're really formalizing something that has been informal, but just an understanding, over the years.”
Jimmie Johnson hopes NASCAR’s edict will have a ripple effect on smaller tracks across the country.
“Another thing I think short tracks need to look at is that a lot of those drivers don’t have spotters,” Johnson said. “They don’t have radios in the car. In a NASCAR event, if you’re part of the crash and that guy is mad at you, your spotter is telling you where he is. You know those things.
“I don’t know if it will change a driver’s mind as they get out of a race car, but it would be nice for the rest of the field to know what has happened and if there’s a hot-tempered driver on foot.”
Kyle Larson kept a sense of humor when talking about on-track confrontations but said some drivers could temper themselves in the wake of the last week.
“Every one of us has gotten frustrated and gotten mad at somebody and just the way people handle it is different,” Larson said. “I think people are going to think twice about it now, after that deal last week.
“I’m sure you’ll still see people get out and point and stuff, but I’m sure they won’t venture too much away from their own race car from now on.”