<
>

Gordon highest qualifier among bubble drivers

RICHMOND, Va. -- Kevin Harvick grabbed the pole Friday night
for the NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Richmond International Raceway,
but most of the attention was on drivers positioning themselves for
a final shot at earning a berth in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Heading into the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 Saturday night at
Richmond International Raceway, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Ryan
Newman, Jeff Gordon and Elliott Sadler are separated by just 62
points in the battle for the final two positions in the 10-man,
10-race playoff that begins next weekend in New Hampshire.

Other than the honor of winning the pole, most of the emphasis
on qualifying is on gaining a good starting spot in order to choose
a strategic pit for the race.

Harvick, well out of contention for the Chase in 15th place, got
his pick of pits after his lap of 128.425 mph gave the Richard
Childress Racing driver his fourth career pole and second of the
season.

He was followed by Greg Biffle at 128.309, rookie Travis Kvapil
at 128.163 -- giving him his best career start -- Mark Martin at
127.968 and Kurt Busch at 127.859. Biffle, Martin and defending Cup
champion Busch have already clinched spots in the Chase.

Four-time series champion Gordon -- 12th, 30 points behind
10th-place McMurray -- did the best job among the quintet of
contenders, qualifying sixth at 127.672.

"We have to make gains, but that's a good start," Gordon said.
"It's a good way to start the weekend."

Newman, just one point behind McMurray, crashed in practice
earlier Friday and had to use a backup car in qualifying. He got
the last shot at knocking Harvick off the top spot, but NASCAR's
top qualifier came up far short, taking the eighth spot in the
43-car field at 127.352.

"It was good, not great,: said Newman, who has won the most
poles in each of his first three Cup seasons and leads again this
year with five. "We'll just see if we can put 400 laps under us
tomorrow night; that will be important. I think we have a good
shot."

Matt Kenseth, in ninth place in the standings, just 10 points
ahead of McMurray, was 13th Friday night at 127.238, with
13th-place Elliott Sadler 19th at 127.041 and McMurray -- who missed
out on the inaugural Chase last year by just 15 points -- 32nd at
126.227.

"You always wish you'd go faster, but I was happy with it," said Kenseth, who has charged from 17th into the top 10 over the
last three months. "I feel good going into the race. Obviously,
anything can happen but, just based solely on performance, I feel
good about our chances.

"Compared to the competition, I was pretty happy with the car -- the way it drove and what our speeds were."

On the other end of the spectrum, Sadler, in the Chase field a
year ago but slumping of late, wasn't particularly happy with his
qualifying effort.

"We did a few changes to the car, but we didn't go far
enough," Sadler said. "We know what we've got to do tomorrow
night. We just have to go ahead and try to do it."

Eighth-place Carl Edwards, who has all but clinched a spot in
the Chase, leading McMurray by 86 points, qualified 18th.

"We just didn't want to make too many changes and mess anything
up too much," Edwards said. "We'll be OK for the race."

Dale Jarrett, 14th and with only a slight mathematical shot at
making the Chase, qualified ninth at 127.298, one of his best
efforts this season.

"We've put ourselves in this position and we just have to go
out and have a good race," the 1999 series champion said. "It's
probably not going to be good enough, regardless of what happens,
but we just need a good run for our sponsors and for these guys
that work on this race team and for our car owner Robert Yates."