There’s a massive sign atop the grandstands in Turn 4 of Las Vegas Motor Speedway this week that reads: “Thank You Jeff 24.”
It’s the track’s nod to Jeff Gordon’s decision to stop full-time racing in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series after this year. Gordon will pilot his No. 24 Chevrolet at the 1.5-mile oval probably for the last time this weekend.
“I don’t have plans to come back and race here, but I guess it’s always possible,” said Gordon, 43, who added he might enter an occasional race after this year.
So the four-time Cup champion wants to leave a lasting impression at each track he visits, in this case a second career win at Las Vegas. (The first was in 2001.) And he took a step in that direction Friday by capturing the pole position in record time.
Gordon will lead the field in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 after posting a track-record speed of 194.679 mph in qualifying. The previous record, set last year by Joey Logano, was 193.278 mph.
Logano — this year’s Daytona 500 winner — qualified second behind Gordon, followed by two of Gordon’s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“What a turnaround from last week,” said Gordon, who finished 41st in the 43-car field in Atlanta after being tangled in a multicar crash. “This is a great way to start out the weekend.”
Before qualifying, Gordon was given a going-away present — a blackjack table with images of Gordon’s race car on the felt surface — by Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell. There probably will be many more such gifts as the year goes on.
“It’s kind of hard to put into perspective right now because we’re so early in the season,” Gordon said of the farewell gestures. “It makes you feel good, but it’s also emotional.”
But Gordon said he’s also focused on business, given that he’s off to a rough start this year. Before his dismal finish in Atlanta, he finished 33rd in the season-opening Daytona 500 when his car was involved in another crash.
“That’s motivation, that’s the way I look at it,” Gordon said of the poor start. “We really focused this weekend on getting that turned around.”
Las Vegas is the first stop in the Cup series’ three-race Western swing. The series moves to Phoenix next weekend and then Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on March 22.
Brian Vickers was back in the No. 55 Toyota after having corrective heart surgery three months ago, and he qualified 28th.
Vickers, 31, initially had an artificial patch inserted to fix a hole in his heart in 2010 that also involved blood-clotting problems. It was discovered in December that his body was rejecting the patch, so he had surgery to repair the hole.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled” to be back, Vickers told reporters before qualifying.
“If we go out there and do well, that’s great,” he said. “And even if we don’t, just being able to get back in a race car again and go 200 [mph] is incredible. No matter what the outcome, I’m happy to be here.”