Gordon kicks off COT era with historic pole

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- It wasn't as historic as Neil Armstrong walking on the moon.

And it certainly didn't deserve a slogan such as: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

But qualifying for the inaugural Car of Tomorrow race was historic in NASCAR Nextel Cup circles, Jeff Gordon said after capturing the pole on Friday.

"This is definitely a historical moment," said Gordon, who on Sunday will attempt to win his sixth race at Bristol Motor Speedway. "Somebody asked me the other day, 'How big is this?' Since I've been in the sport, this and the points change are the two biggest things.

"It's a big deal. There's a lot of attention on it."'

Does this mean Gordon, one of the harshest critics of the boxy-looking car with a rear wing and front-end splitter, is softening his stance on the COT?

"Let me just say it's growing on me a little bit," said Gordon, who won the pole with a lap of 125.453 mph. "The look of the car is the look of the car. The performance of the car, I feel we've learned a lot.

"And I've said the whole time, whether I like the car or not, we're going to do everything we can to be competitive. We accomplished that today."

Tony Stewart, who last week called the car prehistoric-looking, also was impressed with the way the car handled after qualifying fourth at 125.117 mph.

A lot of others were happy with it as well, especially Toyota drivers Jeremy Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger, who qualified for a race for the first time this season.

Mayfield will start 23rd and Allmendinger 43rd.

"I don't see much of a difference in the COT [and the previous car]," Mayfield said.

Gordon said he was impressed with the amount of speed the cars had with almost half the downforce of the previous cars, which are two inches shorter and four inches narrower.

But there was a wider gap between the first- and last-place cars than there was in 2005, the last time qualifying was held for this race because last year's session was rained out.

In 2005, a speed of 127.733 mph won the pole with a speed of 124.210 mph starting last.

On Friday, five-time Bristol winner Kurt Busch had the slowest speed at 119.395 mph, more than 6 mph slower than Gordon.

"That might teach some people things about me. Just because I don't like something doesn't mean I'm not going to work hard at it."
-- Jeff Gordon

Gordon doesn't think the gap will impact racing.

"It'll actually make it a little easier to pass," he said. "I'm more concerned with the cars that are running about the same speed -- maybe a little slower -- and then you come up behind them and then you don't have the aerodynamics to make the pass."

Stewart said the engineers at Joe Gibbs Racing made great strides to improve the feel of his car since last month's test.

"It still doesn't feel as good as the other cars did, but at least we're decent so far," he said.

No, Stewart hasn't completely gone soft on the COT.

"I still think it's ugly," he said. "They're all ugly, but at least everybody's cars look ugly. We all look evenly ugly. I still don't think they look that good. It was fun watching the Busch practice and see what a stock car is supposed to look like versus a sports car."

Jim Aust, the CEO of Toyota Racing Development, was happy to see five of seven Toyotas make the field after seeing as few as two in recent weeks.

The only Toyotas that failed to qualify were driven by Michael Waltrip, who has missed four straight races, and David Reutimann.

"We've made some progress from when we were here last in the testing," Aust said. "That's good to see. As you can see, everybody else makes progress as well. It's going to be a constant battle all year long."

Aust laughed at rumors that Toyota hasn't put as much effort into the current car as it has in the COT preparing for this race.

"I don't think it's any sandbagging, that's for sure," he said.

The real test for many teams will come in Saturday's practice when drivers will simulate real racing. Gordon remains unsure of how the car will handle in traffic.

But he's confident the race won't be much different than any other Bristol race.

"That might teach some people things about me," Gordon said. "Just because I don't like something doesn't mean I'm not going to work hard at it."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.