Updated: August 1, 2014, 5:48 PM ET

Sunday Conversation: Gordon's big day

Rookie Larson earns first pole

By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

LONG POND, Pa. -- Kyle Larson started first at Richmond earlier this season, but that's because he "won" practice on a day when rain canceled qualifying. Friday at Pocono Raceway, he went out and beat Joey Logano for the top spot.

Larson's lap of 183.483 mph was enough to edge Logano on a day when Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five.

Kyle Larson
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesKyle Larson makes next season's Sprint Unlimited based on winning the pole Friday at Pocono.

"I had butterflies in that last round," Larson said. "... I was nervous and I hit all three corners about as good as I could, so I was really excited about that. Thanks to Target and everybody at the shop. They're making the cars faster and faster every week, and we're getting better and better. I really think a win is coming soon, maybe before the Chase starts."

Larson sits 13th in points with six races left until the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set. With only 11 race winners thus far, Larson would make the provisional field as the points standings fill the remaining five spots.

But with additional winners still a possibility, Larson knows he has work to do to ensure a Chase berth.

Larson has struggled with shifting in a Cup car, something that's a priority here. He ran the ARCA race here in June, winning it a day before finishing fifth in his Cup debut at the track. This weekend, he's running the Camping World Truck Series race to get ready for Sunday.

"I think anytime you can get laps around here at Pocono, it helps. This place is so different," Larson said. "Each corner is different. It really helps with your rhythm and things. We've been fast in every car I've run here so far."

With just 43 cars entered, everyone made the field on a day when Team Penske's drivers qualified second and third.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

Junior happy crew chief search over

By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't want to play a major role in choosing his new crew chief, content to leave that decision to current crew chief Steve Letarte, Jimmie Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, and others in management at Hendrick Motorsports.

Greg Ives, announced earlier this week as Earnhardt's crew chief for 2015, was Knaus' engineer for five consecutive championships with Jimmie Johnson. So a strong working relationship with Knaus will be crucial as the Johnson and Earnhardt teams share a shop at HMS. Doug Duchardt, the team's GM, and owner Rick Hendrick also played key roles in the decision.

Earnhardt already has a strong relationship with Ives, who is in his second year as a crew chief at JR Motorsports, the Nationwide Series team in which he has an ownership stake. Much of the relationship has been built over friendly banter and trash talk as the two have been in a fantasy football league together since 2008, so the relationship goes beyond racing.

That's important to Earnhardt, who didn't want to simply find a clone of Letarte to sit atop his pit box. Even if he wins a title with Letarte before the crew chief moves to the broadcast booth next year, Earnhardt's focus is on getting better.

Greg Ives
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesGreg Ives has been having great success as the crew chief for Chase Elliott this season in the Nationwide Series.

"Steve would want us to get better. We are not trying to photocopy Steve and plug in a guy just like him. We want to try to get better," Earnhardt said Friday at Pocono Raceway. "I think we have [focused on that] in making this decision. I haven't been able to really talk to the guys yet, but the ones that I have been able to talk with, they feel like that is what we have done.

"We are going to be a better team for it once we get going next year. I mean, it's a big relief to get it off my shoulders and not worry about who we are going to be working with. What kind of personality he is going to be and whether or not we are going to get along or whether he is going to work and whether the chemistry is going to be good and the cars will be fast. I don't have to worry about that. I feel good about it."

Knaus also feels good about the decision, saying that while there are no easy decisions in NASCAR these days, this one was a "no-brainer" considering how Ives worked his way up from a mechanic to setting up Johnson's chassis and then to the lead race engineer with the team.

The shop is also excited to have Ives back in the fold, Knaus said.

"We have seen him come [to HMS] as a young man, get married, have kids, grow, turn into a crew chief, win races in the Nationwide Series, lead the points over there. Everybody is really excited to have him back," Knaus said. "I think he's going to be a positive influence to everybody at Hendrick Motorsports.

"We are sad that Steve is leaving. … We all like Steve, but much like Steve and [Jeff Gordon's crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and myself, Greg has gone up through the system. Everybody knows him, everybody respects him. He understands the Hendrick way, so it's good. I think it's going to be a great thing."

The June race here was a great thing for Earnhardt, as he took advantage of Brad Keselowski slowing in an attempt to use the air off a slower car to dislodge a piece of paper that was covering his grille. Earnhardt was dealing with a similar issue, but gambled his engine would last despite increasingly high temperatures, and it did just that.

As is the case with his next crew chief, Earnhardt knows the status quo likely won't be good enough on Sunday. Keselowski was the class of the field here in June, so the No. 88 team needs to be better.

"We didn't go into the race thinking that we had a very good chance of winning, we were just going to try to do the best we could and felt like we had a top-5 car, but there were certainly some guys much faster than us in practice," Earnhardt said. "We want to definitely find some speed on Saturday [during the two practice sessions] and give ourselves a little more breathing room, a little more comfort and confidence going into the race.

"We are confident. Anything can happen here. You get out front, it's going to be hard to pass. It's easy to pass from 15th on back, but when you get up there and the competition gets so tough in the top five, you just have to be in the lead or in second somewhere around the top three or four even on those last two restarts. The last restart you need to be on the front row to have a real shot at it."

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

Biffle ready to lead search for speed

By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

Greg Biffle says he had options and considered leaving Roush Fenway Racing before signing a new, three-year contract nearly two months ago.

The agreement was announced Sunday at Indianapolis, but Biffle said the team made re-signing him a priority once it knew Carl Edwards would be leaving after this season. Now that his future is set, the priority is finding speed in the team's Fords.

Sure, Edwards has a pair of wins, but the season has largely been a struggle for the team, which includes Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Biffle was optimistic after the first practice on Friday but wound up 25th in qualifying. Stenhouse placed 23rd, and Edwards, who had hard contact with the wall, wound up 26th.

"It feels like we're getting back to where we need to be to compete and win races," Biffle said before qualifying. "That's the most important thing here is to win races. Listening to Jeff [Gordon] talk about the win at Indy, that's hopefully us talking about winning here or Michigan or one of these next couple of races because we certainly need it and we're capable of it.

"We just have to continue to close the gap. I think before we unloaded here last time we were 32nd and now we're sixth, so we're on speed, we feel. We need to work on closing the gap from eighth to first, and I think we can do that."

When Matt Kenseth left Roush Fenway after the 2012 season, Biffle was viewed as the veteran leader while Edwards was viewed as the face of the team because of his outgoing nature and on-track performance.

Biffle says his results have stacked up well against Edwards' the past few years even though Edwards nearly won the championship in 2011, losing on a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart. Regardless, with Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne as teammates next year, Biffle is now the team's clear leader.

"I'm ready to spend more time at the shop and try and help this organization get faster," Biffle said. "We've worked really hard for the last month and have gained tremendously on it, so I look forward to kind of carrying the flag and leading this organization. None of us are happy right now, but we're getting a heck of a lot better."

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

Gordon back to work after gratifying win

By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

All told, winning the Brickyard 400 couldn't have come at a better time for Jeff Gordon.

A companywide luncheon at Hendrick Motorsports already had been scheduled for this week to celebrate owner Rick Hendrick's 65th birthday, not to mention the 30th anniversary of the Sprint Cup juggernaut. The luncheon also turned into a celebration of Gordon's win.

On a personal level, the Gordons were having a birthday party for son Leo before Jeff headed to Pocono Raceway.

But in the what-have-you-done-lately world of NASCAR, none of that really mattered once Gordon reached Pocono.

"And yet we get here and it's back to business. We're certainly going back to business with a different mindset of what we're capable of doing as a team and what cars we're bringing to the racetrack and things like that," Gordon said. "This is Pocono. It's similar to Indianapolis, but it's unique and different enough as well that we've had to work today pretty hard to try to get some more speed out of the car."

Although speed was the focus on Friday, Gordon enjoyed having a few days to reminisce with his co-workers and family. It helped him appreciate the magnitude of what he accomplished in winning a fifth time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Being that he hadn't won one of the sport's top races in years, the win was extra-special.

"Those are the greatest moments as a race car driver or competitor that you can go through," he said. "I just feel fortunate that not only did we win, but the event I told you about at Hendrick and to be able to go there and have the whole organization patting you on the back and saying thank you and shaking your hand; to get that opportunity and then to have the birthday party where you're around your closest friends and family and have those same kinds of conversations, it just doesn't get much better than that."

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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