ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Jeff Gordon says he doesn't need to win to be happy.
But the two-time defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion has made winning practically routine over the last few years.
A victory in the Dura-LubeBig Kmart 400 today at North Carolina Speedway would be the 44th of his still budding career. He finished the 1998 season with two in a row and got the new season started last Sunday with a victory in the Daytona 500, so a trip to victory lane at Rockingham would match the modern-era record for consecutive wins.
It's been done seven times since 1972, including last year by the 27-year-old Gordon on the way to 13 victories, equaling another modern-era mark.
"I don't know about the four in a row," Gordon said. "Last season was last season. This is a new season. We're just trying to come into Rockingham and get the best finish we can."
Gordon, who swept both Winston Cup events here last year, has won three of the last four and a total of four times at The Rock.
"I feel very good about this racetrack," he said. "The last two times we've been here, we've been very strong. But we're just trying to put together a good string of runs. Those (26) top fives we had last year impressed me more than the wins. That's what we want to try to continue to do.
"We know we've got a car capable of winning, but you've got to have all the circumstances work out for you at the same time."
Gordon will start third in the 43-car field. In fact, his No. 24 Chevrolet is the only General Motors product breaking up a sweep of the top six by Ford Tauruses.
Ricky Rudd gained the 24th pole of his career and first in 101 races by getting around the 1.017-mile oval at 157.241 mph. The entire field was determined in one round of time trials on a cold, sunny Saturday after Friday's scheduled opening session of qualifying was rained out.
"There wasn't anything particularly pretty about our lap," said Rudd, whose last pole came at Charlotte on Oct. 4, 1995. "I really was sort of mad at myself because I drove into turn one and really kind of overdrove the corner a little bit. I really couldn't believe the lap was that good. But I would have been real happy with a top five, so a pole is great."
Jeff Burton took the outside spot on the front row at 157.180, followed by Gordon at 157.167, Jeremy Mayfield at 157.018, Mark Martin at 156.931 and Rusty Wallace at 156.931.
"I'm really happy with second," Burton said. "As long as you get a good pit spot, you start near the front, it's good enough to win. But we never lost a race last year because we qualified poorly, so that means we're not going to win this race because we qualified well. Qualifying is just one little step in the process. Making your car do what it needs to do for tomorrow is the most important part."
Rounding out the top 10 were the Chevy of Mike Skinner at 156.864, the Ford of Brett Bodine at 156.689 and the Pontiacs of Bobby Labonte and John Andretti at 156.676 and 156.649.
Dale Jarrett, third in last year's season standings and 38th in Daytona after being involved in a multicar crash, will start 11th. Daytona runner-up Dale Earnhardt qualified 18th.
The top 31 qualifiers will pit on the front straightaway, while the rest of the starters will have the disadvantage of pitting on the backstretch.
Among those who failed to make it onto the front pit road were Wally Dallenbach Jr., Ernie Irvan, Ricky Craven and Chad Little.
But they had a better result than Derrike Cope and rookie of the year contender Buckshot Jones, both of whom failed to make the starting field.
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