TALLADEGA, Ala. -- About the only similarities between Joe Nemechek's two consecutive pole victories in the Winston 500 are the driver and the Talladega Superspeedway oval.
A year ago, Front Row Joe, then driving a Chevrolet for Felix Sabates, took the top qualifying spot with a white-knuckle, jaw-rattling lap of 198.331 mph. Nemechek's run Friday in Andy Petree's No. 33 Chevy was much smoother -- thanks to some new NASCAR engine and aerodynamic rules -- but it was also considerably slower.
Still, his fast lap of 190.279 on the 2.66-mile, high-banked oval was easily the best of the day, beating out Talladega qualifying record-holder Bill Elliott, whose Ford took the other front row spot for Sunday race with a 190.045.
"The cars definitely drive different than where we were last year at this point," Nemechek said after grabbing his first pole of the season and the sixth of his career. "We're nine mph slower, but the cars drive really good.
"Last year, the way the rules were, the cars were really sucked down to the race track. It was really hairy making your qualifying runs. The mode we're in now, I think they're going to race great."
In an effort to give the drivers more power in tight situations while still keeping speeds down, NASCAR widened the holes in the power-robbing carburetor restrictor plates used here -- creating more horsepower -- and gave the cars a less aerodynamic silhouette with a new rooftop strip, a higher rear spoiler and a lower front air dam.
Elliott, who has eight Talladega poles and also started second in Talladega's spring race, set the all-time NASCAR qualifying record of 212.809 here in the spring of 1987 -- the year before the sanctioning body began using restrictor plates to slow the cars at both Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, it's biggest and fastest ovals.
Over the years, the engine builders have always found ways to regain horsepower and NASCAR has responded each time by changing the holes in the plates accordingly.
"It's been interesting from my perspective," Elliott said. "After they started using the plates, they started laying down the (rear) spoilers and making the cars looser to get more speed. There have been times I was more uncomfortable here at 190 than I was at 212.
"NASCAR has gone through a lot of things trying to get the rules right. The evolution here has been a strange one throughout the years. This may be the ingredients we really need. We'll know more about that after we race here Sunday."
Most of the cars stayed away from each other as much as possible in practice, and qualifying is done one car at a time. So, even for the handful of teams that took part in a brief test several weeks ago in Daytona, nobody is quite sure what to expect once the cars begin running in packs.
"We'll all know a lot more after practice tomorrow morning," Nemechek said. "With all these cars going out at once, nobody really knows what's going to happen. What I do know is that everybody will still be running wide open out there. It could be big."
Rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third in qualifying at 189.391, followed by Jerry Nadeau at 188.947, Tony Stewart at 188.827 and series leader Bobby Labonte at 188.738.
With just five races remaining, Labonte is a season-high 252-points ahead of runner-up Jeff Burton and 258 ahead of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt. If the two contenders don't make some serious inroads into the lead Sunday, Labonte is almost assured his first Winston Cup title.
"We're just looking forward to keeping it on all four wheels," said Labonte, who got caught up in a multicar crash late in the spring race, in which he finished 21st. "We just hope we're there at the end of the day."
Earnhardt, who blew an engine after just two laps of practice Friday, still managed to qualify 20th at 186.801, while Burton, who often seems to struggle in time trials, wound up 37th at 185.122.
"We've always been able to race here pretty good, so we'll see if we can get the car tuned in tomorrow morning for racing," said Earnhardt, who has won nine times in Talladega.
Burton said, "We knew coming here that we might have a little bit of trouble qualifying, but we made a decision to spend more time working on other things and thought that the draft would be the great equalizer -- especially with the new rules. We don't ever like being this slow, but we'll see what it gets us on Sunday."
The top 25 drivers locked up starting spots in the 43-car field, with the rest of the qualifiers having the choice of requalifying Saturday or standing on their first-day laps.