WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Jeff Gordon shouted “Oh, yeah boys! Yoo Hoo!” over his radio, then punched his right arm skyward when he emerged from his No. 24 Chevrolet as his resurgent season continues.
Gordon turned a fast lap of 129.466 mph on Saturday to win the pole for the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, edging road racing ace Marcos Ambrose and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in the second and final round of knockout qualifying.
It was Gordon’s first pole of the season, his third at Watkins Glen, and the 75th of his stellar career.
Just like old times at Watkins Glen International, where Gordon has won four times. And on his son Leo’s birthday no less.
“This year has been phenomenal,” said Gordon, whose last pole at the storied road course was 11 years ago. “I wished him a happy birthday this morning and said, ‘All right, I’m going to try to get you that pole.’
“I wasn’t real confident in that statement, and now I really can’t wait to talk to him.”
Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch rounded out the top five. AJ Allmendinger was sixth, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman.
Defending race winner Kyle Busch will start 19th. Just missing the final round of qualifying was five-time Watkins Glen winner Tony Stewart, who will start 13th.
Danica Patrick, who crashed in final practice on Friday and will start at the rear of the field, used the session for practice and ran 11 laps.
With five races left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins, the drivers on the cusp of making the 16-driver field didn’t fare well. Greg Biffle will start 28th, two spots in front of Kasey Kahne. Rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon were 23rd and 31st.
Ambrose, who has won two of the past three Cup races at Watkins Glen, set a track record of 129.491 mph in the first round of qualifying and had the fastest lap of the second until Gordon went out at just the right time with no other drivers to contend with.
Ambrose sped out in the closing seconds in an attempt to make one final run at the top spot but was too late and had to settle for second.
“I wish Jeff was a little kinder to me to let me get the pole,” said Ambrose, who needs a victory to make the Chase and is at the track where he’s the odds-on favorite. “It was a pretty good lap, though, and I will take it. You have to be happy with front-row starts.”
Ambrose had more to be happy about Saturday afternoon.
The aggressive Australian dueled early with Busch to fall off the pace in the NASCAR Nationwide race, then was flawless the rest of the way, holding off a hard-charging Busch at the end to win the race for the fourth time in his last four starts.
“It’s just something special. I’m just so thrilled for the guys,” Ambrose said. “I had my tongue hanging out the whole day. There was nothing left. I tried to hold him back. Another lap and I would have been in trouble.”
Ambrose raced to three straight victories at the track from 2008-2010, then missed the 2011-2013 events after failing to find a sponsor.
Ambrose’s future in NASCAR with Richard Petty Motorsports remains in doubt.
“There’s a lot at stake, a lot of stuff going on in my mind,” Ambrose said. “If I can repeat my performance today (on Sunday), I’ll be happy.”