Jeff Gordon captures dramatic pole for NASCAR at Charlotte

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With a cooling track and the top drivers in the series last in the draw, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series had a dynamic conclusion to its qualifying session for the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The last four drivers to go out all beat provisional polesitter Kasey Kahne, culminating with Jeff Gordon taking the pole as the last driver to run. Gordon’s 74th pole of his career is his second this season (Richmond in the regular season finale) and came after a flier of 194.308 mph (27.791 seconds) at the 1.5-mile oval. Gordon, who has yet to win this season, has five prior Charlotte victories.

“Man that was awesome!” Gordon exhaled after the session, to ESPN. “It’s been a while since we got pole here, and do it in that kind of fashion. The way the draw was, a lot of cars went late, but times didn’t pick up as much as we thought. Then guys started putting down good laps, so I knew the grip was there. Phenomenal job by the guys on the Axalta Chevrolet. I gotta thank ‘Squirrel’ for that draw. He drew (number) 2 last week, he made up for it today.”

Gordon’s car stuck best through Turns 3 and 4 and ultimately that was the difference to net his ninth Charlotte pole.

“We got through 3 and 4 good in practice, but freed the car up a bit though,” Gordon explained. “That would help my car in 1 and 2. I had a lot of confidence. It went through 1/2 as good as it could. I could be committed, the front end kept cutting, kept the throttle open. Didn’t know if it was going to be enough, and it was.”

Gordon’s lap bumped Kevin Harvick, who had bumped Greg Biffle, who had bumped Kahne in what was a domino effect of next-car-out setting the fastest lap. Harvick starts second, but the Kansas winner still felt he left a little on the table in his No. 29 Jimmy John’s Chevrolet, with a fast lap of 194.203 mph (27.806 seconds).

“I felt like I didn’t get everything in 3/4,” Harvick told ESPN. “From the way practice was, I had to get everything in 1/2 and not get tight off 4. But I lost it there. We knew we needed to qualify better and race better 1.5-miles, and we’re doing that. We would really have liked to have the pole, but everyone knows how we’ve qualified in the past, so being on the front row is a major benefit.”

Biffle, who was briefly on pole at 193.959 (27.841), lines up third ahead of Gordon’s three Hendrick Motorsports teammates: Jimmie Johnson, Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Junior” gave it a ride on his 39th birthday and nearly knocked off Kahne, but he felt he underdrove going into Turn 3 and lost time there.

Ryan Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch rounded out the top 10.

Points leader Matt Kenseth is in-between Cup series debutantes Brian Scott and Kyle Larson in 20th on the grid. Larson estimated his No. 51 Target Chevrolet was loose in Turns 1 and 2, and tight in 3 and 4, as he’ll line up 21st.

Travis Kvapil, racing this weekend despite assault charges levied against him, qualified 41st and the third weekend debutante, Blake Koch, posted the slowest lap of the evening at 180.572 mph (29.905 seconds) and will start shotgun on the 43-car field in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford.

The race goes green on Saturday evening.

F1 2017 driver review: Max Verstappen

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Max Verstappen

Team: Red Bull Racing
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 2
Podiums (excluding wins): 2
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 1
Points: 168
Laps Led: 133
Championship Position: 6th

Max Verstappen rise as a once-in-a-generation talent continued through the 2017 Formula 1 season, even if reliability issues meant we were made to wait for his best form to arrive.

Verstappen stole the show in a wet-dry Chinese Grand Prix by charging from 16th to seventh in the opening lap before ultimately finishing third for Red Bull, yet he would not grace the podium again until the Malaysian Grand Prix at the start of October.

A combination of power unit problems and on-track clashes saw Verstappen retire from seven of the 12 races in the intermittent period, with incidents in Spain and Austria being avoidable.

Perhaps most embarrassing of all was his stoppage due to a power unit failure in front of a grandstand swathed in orange at the Belgian Grand Prix, a race tens of thousands of Dutch fans had attended to cheer Verstappen on.

But when Verstappen got things right, it was – as he frequently quoted – simply, simply lovely. There was plenty left in the tank, as proven by his sheer domination of the races in Malaysia and Mexico as he took the second and third wins of his career.

Perhaps even more impressive was Verstappen’s victory over Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the qualifying head-to-head battle this year, an area the Australian has traditionally been strong in. Verstappen outqualifed his teammate 13-7 – it wasn’t even close…

All in all, Verstappen once again proved that on his day, he is one of the finest talents to grace F1 in recent years. With the right car underneath him next year, a title fight is certainly possible and will be the target – but there is always room for improvement.

And that is the scary part: Verstappen is only going to get better and better.

Season High: Dominating in Malaysia after an early pass on Lewis Hamilton.

Season Low: Crashing out on Lap 1 in Austria.