TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) _ Series leader Jeff Gordon, winner of NASCAR's last two races at Talladega and Daytona, recorded a solid fifth-place run in qualifying Friday for the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Gordon's fast lap of 189.763 mph set up his chance to match the late Dale Earnhardt on Sunday as the only driver to win three carburetor restrictor plate races in a season.
Joe Nemechek, meanwhile, wasn't surprised to be back at the front of the field, just that it took so long to get there.
Nemechek, who earned the nickname ``Front Row Joe'' when he won six poles from 1997-00, got No. 7 on Friday at Talladega, the track where his last pole came four years ago.
``We've been right on top of our game,'' Nemechek said. ``You know, it's about the car in qualifying. The car has got to be right and the engine has got to be right.
``When the race comes, that's when the driver makes a difference.''
After getting his No. 01 Chevrolet around the steeply banked 2.66-mile oval at 190.749 mph, Nemechek shook his head when reminded his last pole came at the track on Oct. 13, 2000, 133 races ago.
``That's a long time,'' Nemechek said. ``They're just so hard to get. The competition's so tough. But we've been so close this year, doing a good job. We've had two outside poles and I felt like this was close.''
Ricky Rudd was second in a Ford at 190.609, followed by Dale Jarrett's Taurus at 190.374 and Scott Riggs, Nemechek's MBV/MB2 Motorsports teammate, at 190.310.
The rest of the top 10 was made up of drivers who are part of NASCAR's new 10-driver, 10-race playoff-style championship.
Gordon will go into the race, the third in the championship showdown, with a one-point lead over Kurt Busch, who qualified eighth at 189.676.
In between, were Elliott Sadler at 189.752 and defending series champion Matt Kenseth at 189.710, with Jeremy Mayfield ninth at 189.526 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounding out the top 10 at 189.481.
The other title contenders were farther back in the 43-car field, with Jimmie Johnson 16th, Mark Martin 17th, Ryan Newman 19th and Tony Stewart 30th.
Some drivers have talked about Sunday's race being a pivotal one, but Gordon says they're all going to be tough.
``In the next eight races, I think every lap is going to count and every position is going to count,'' Gordon said. ``We're pretty happy with that qualifying run. We'll just get the car out there in the draft tomorrow (in practice) and, hopefully, it will be real strong for the race.''
The younger Earnhardt, who has won four of the last five races at Talladega and finished second to Gordon here in April, said qualifying doesn't mean too much at the track, where cars race two- and three-wide in huge packs and move up and back through the field as the race progresses.
``There is only one thing that's seriously important to me and the team today, and that's getting a good pit stall for the race,'' Earnhardt said. ``You don't want a bad pit stall. It's so hard to get on and off pit road here. It's important to qualify well so you can choose a good pit stall.''