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Friday, September 17, 2004
Updated: September 18, 12:05 PM ET
Rain gives Chase drivers top spots

Associated Press

LOUDON, N.H. -- It was an inauspicious start to the 10-race playoff for NASCAR's Nextel Cup championship with rain washing out qualifying Friday at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Only 16 cars ran laps on to the 1.058-mile oval before rain began falling. NASCAR officials waited more than an hour before deciding to set the lineup for Sunday's Sylvania 300 mostly by car-owner points.

Jamie McMurray was the fastest of the drivers who did run, turning a lap of 131.975 mph. But he will start 11th in the 43-car field.

The 10 drivers who qualified to compete under NASCAR's new championship format will start ahead of McMurray. Series leader Jeff Gordon, seeking his fifth title, and teammate and runner-up Jimmie Johnson have the front row.

"This is great because it allows us to pick a great pit stall and it gives us a great starting position,'' Gordon said of his gift pole.

The rest of the top 10, all separated in increments of five points for the first race of the title chase, will line up behind the Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start third, followed by Tony Stewart, reigning series champion Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, July race winner Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield and Ryan Newman.

Newman had won three of the past four poles here -- losing out only in July 2002 when qualifying also was rained out. But the "Rocket Man,'' who has five poles this season and 23 in just 107 Cup races, had not made it onto the track Friday before the rain began.

Gordon, who leads the series with six poles, doesn't get credit for this one. But that's fine with him because he gets to start the race up front and has a virtual lock on the five-point bonus for leading at least one lap and a good shot at the five-point bonus for leading the most laps.

"I felt like we had a top-five car today, but we didn't have anything for Ryan Newman,'' Gordon said. "He's in a whole other category.''

Newman would have loved to take a run at another pole here.

"We could have used this for sure,'' said Newman, who has been the loudest critic of the new points system. "Track position is always more important at this track and Martinsville than it is anywhere else. It's all about being flat, and the flatter the track is the more important track position becomes.

"Winning races and leading laps will be important things in these last 10 races. I think whoever does well here and at Dover (next week) will be in the driver's seat for the championship.''

Gordon agrees that a good start to the championship battle is important, but he doesn't plan on doing anything differently in the final 10 races than he has in the first 26 this season.

"Every weekend, if I have the opportunity to lead a lap, then I try to lead a lap,'' Gordon said. "If I can lead the most laps, I try to lead the most laps. If I can win the race, I try to win the race. So I don't know how you do it any different.''

Among the three title contenders who did make qualifying runs Friday, Earnhardt was the best with a third-place run.

"I'm real proud of the team and the efforts they've made,'' said Earnhardt, who needed relief here in July after being burned a week earlier in a non-NASCAR crash. "The car was real good in practice and we ran a lot of stuff and were able to get a good lap. I'm pretty happy with the car.''

Kenseth and Busch also were among the Friday qualifiers, and both were happy that it rained.

"That was terrible and definitely disappointing for me,'' said Kenseth, 10th-fastest among the 16 qualifiers. "I must not have driven it hard enough, I guess.

"But qualifying bad is really nothing new for us. I sure wish we could do better than what we do, but I think we have a great race car here.''

Busch, who beat Gordon for the win here July 25 despite starting 32nd, said the rain was just fine with him, even though he was sixth-fastest.

"We wouldn't have started any better than seventh with that lap,'' he said. "We were just slipping and sliding too much.''