DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Jeff Gordon had a hunch his Hendrick Motorsports team had closed the gap on Dale Earnhardt Inc.'s dominance at Daytona International Speedway. His intuition proved correct Thursday night, when he won the pole for the Pepsi 400, his third straight on the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit.
Gordon's lap of 188.659 mph bested DEI's Michael Waltrip, who qualified second to put a pair of Chevrolets on the front row. It was the fourth pole of the season and 50th of Gordon's career.
``This weekend is working out really awesome for us so far,'' said Gordon, who also had the fastest practice speed. ``For the first time I felt like the car was really good from the minute we unloaded it and the Hendrick power has been strong.''
Waltrip, a three-time Daytona winner, ran a lap at 188.620 as the first car to attempt to qualify. Although he didn't know who would edge him for the pole, he expected a challenge.
``You never know where it's going to come from,'' Waltrip said. ``It's a battle and the bombs are coming from every which way every week. But we seem to be consistently good, and so does Jeff.''
Ricky Rudd qualified third and Dale Jarrett fourth in a pair of Fords that use engines from the Jack Roush-Robert Yates partnership.
Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth, Joe Nemechek sixth and Scott Riggs seventh. Ward Burton, Elliott Sadler and defending race champion Greg Biffle completed the top 10.
After qualifying was over, NASCAR disallowed Sadler's speed because both rear quarterpanels on his No. 38 Ford were too low. It moved him back to the 39th starting position, while Biffle moved into ninth and Terry Labonte claimed the final spot in the top 10.
The top 10 consisted of seven Chevrolets and three Fords. The highest qualifying Dodge was rookie Brendan Gaughan in 12th.
Earnhardt, who won this race in 2001 and has six victories in the last 12 restrictor-plate races, shouldn't need much time to hook up with Waltrip after the start. Waltrip expects the two DEI cars will push each other in an attempt to give the company its third victory in this race in the last four years.
``We understand what you have to do to be successful and we'll work hard at doing that Saturday night,'' Waltrip said.
Gordon, who dominated in his victory last week at Sonoma, Calif., by winning the pole, the race and leading every practice session, will be seeking consecutive victories for the 20th time in his career.
He won the pole at Michigan three weeks ago and dominated the early part of the race before his engine blew up and knocked him out of the event.
Gordon already has a restrictor-plate victory this year, winning at Talladega Superspeedway in April. He's never won two plate races in the same season and will try to change that Saturday night.
``This team is on a roll right now,'' he said. ``I hope we can hang on to it.''
To beat the DEI duo, Gordon will need help from some of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. The closest to him on the starting grid is Labonte, in 10th. Rookie Brian Vickers was 14th and Jimmie Johnson, who holds a 27-point lead over Earnhardt in the series standings, was 19th.
Tony Stewart qualified 18th and many competitors felt the former series champion was fortunate to be in the field after avoiding a suspension for hitting Vickers last week. Stewart, fined $50,000 and docked driver points, felt that punishment was stiff enough.
``I'm not sure I totally agree with the punishment,'' he said. ``I know other people have disagreed and said I probably should have been parked this week.''
Bill Elliott, driving a Dodge borrowed from car owner Ray Evernham, qualified 34th and will make just his third start of the season.