Jeff Gordon wins 75th career Sprint Cup pole at Watkins Glen

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Jeff Gordon has won four times at Watkins Glen International in his illustrious career, but hasn’t gone to Victory Lane there since 2001.

It looks like he stands a good chance to end that drought. The current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship leader set a new track record with a lap of 68.126 seconds (129.466 mph) to claim the pole position for tomorrow’s Cheez-It 355.

His 75th career Sprint Cup pole also served as a nice birthday present for his son, Leo, who turns four today.

“Today is Leo’s birthday and I told him on the phone earlier that I was gonna try and get a pole for him – not realistically thinking I had a shot at it,” Gordon told ESPN. “But we were going for it and we got it done. Happy Birthday, buddy.”

With less than four minutes to go in the 10-minute final round, Gordon leaped to the top of the charts ahead of Marcos Ambrose. As the clock wound down, the Australian raced out of the pits in a bid to retake the pole with one last flyer.

But he did not make it to the start/finish line in time to begin the lap, ensuring that Gordon would claim his third career Cup pole at the New York State road course.

The pole also snaps a string of poor starts for Gordon at the Glen. He had started outside the Top-10 in the previous five races there.

“Qualifying is what’s really been hurting us here at Watkins Glen and I blame myself mainly,” said Gordon. “[But] I’m so happy today to get three shots at it – I think that made the big difference.

“The first lap, I did OK but I got held up a little bit coming back to the checkered. The second one was a really good lap that got us into the Top 12, and I just tried to do the same things on the last lap.

“[Crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] made a slight adjustment and I thought it was about the same I ran before. I didn’t think it’d be that much better, but, wow, what a lap.”

Meanwhile, Ambrose will start on the outside of the front row as he seeks to break into the Chase for the Sprint Cup with what would be his third win in the last four Cup races at the Glen.

For now, though, the Aussie will shift his attention to today’s Nationwide Series Zippo 200, where he’ll start fourth behind polesitter and fellow Sprint Cup regular Brad Keselowski.

Jimmie Johnson will try to stop his recent run of bad luck on Sunday from the inside of Row 2. Joining him there will be Kevin Harvick, who led Friday’s first practice session.

Kurt Busch and another potential darkhorse in A.J. Allmendinger start from Row 3. Pocono winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are in Row 4, and Row 5 consists of Keselowski and Ryan Newman.

Other notables include five-time Glen winner Tony Stewart in 13th; defending Cheez-It 355 winner Kyle Busch in 19th; solid road racers Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. in 24th and 25th respectively; Red Bull Global Rallycross points leader Nelson Piquet Jr. in 32nd; and Danica Patrick in 43rd after having to go to a backup car.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Watkins Glen – Starting Lineup

Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
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You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

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