– The qualifying session for NASCAR's biggest race of the year was lambasted by Tony Stewart as "a complete embarrassment" and called a "cute show" by Clint Bowyer.

The frenetic knockout format ended with Jeff Gordon on the pole for the final Daytona 500 of his career.

And as NASCAR executive vice president Steve O'Donnell tried to answer to the wave of displeasure from the drivers after Sunday's session, he was reminded by Gordon himself what a predicament the series is in regarding qualifying for "The Great American Race."

Gordon had no qualms with qualifying after he and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson outsmarted the field Sunday to sweep the front row for the Daytona 500. They were among only a handful of drivers who were pleased with the format, and their opinion was most certainly based on the end result.

"This format is crazy and chaotic," Gordon said. "It can be extremely rewarding when you have a day like we had."

NASCAR abandoned single-car qualifying runs, the format used for 56 years at Daytona International Speedway, for the knockout group sessions it adopted last season.

After a five-car accident in the first group of 25 drivers, Bowyer railed against using knockouts to set the Daytona 500 field. Reigning champion Kevin Harvick and Stewart both vented via Twitter, while Ryan Newman was among the many drivers critical of NASCAR.

"It's hard to stand behind NASCAR when everybody I talk to up and down pit road doesn't understand why we're doing this," Newman said. "Maybe I need to be sat down and educated a little bit."

O'Donnell, who acknowledged the driver complaints, said NASCAR is trying to create a more entertaining format for fans than the snooze-inducing single-car runs.

"Not lost on us how much work goes into these cars by the teams, the efforts for our biggest race of the year," he said. "We've got a really good track record of making adjustments where we need to, so we'll certainly evaluate what took place."

But the 12 drivers who made it into the final round weren't really complaining, especially Gordon, who has announced this will be his final full-time season as driver.

Qualifying was messy from the start, when the first 25 drivers all jockeyed for position before they even left pit road. Some even drove through the grass to get through the traffic jam. It stuck Bowyer behind Reed Sorenson, who tried to block Bowyer in a desperation attempt to advance through the knockout rounds and it triggered a five-car pileup.

Both Bowyer and Sorenson ended up with wrecked Toyotas. It was Sorenson's only car, and he wasn't sure if he'd be able to locate another car before Thursday's twin qualifying races.

"We used to come down here and worry about who would sit on the front row in the biggest race of the year," Bowyer said. "Now all we do is come down here and worry about how a start-and-park like this out of desperation is going to knock us out of the Daytona 500.

"We've been in meetings for 45 minutes just trying to figure out what in the hell everybody is going to do just so we can make the race. It's stupid."