BRISTOL, Tenn. - Jeff Gordon now realizes he can't control all the things that can keep him from winning, so he's going to concentrate on a precious few and take his chances.
Qualifying, he said, is the first step toward ending his 31-race winless streak. Staying in the lead pack will be another. Making good the right decisions on pit road will be the last.
Gordon took a big step toward Victory Lane on Friday night by winning the pole position for tonight's Sharpie 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. His DuPont Chevrolet was fastest in practice, and he easily backed that up in time trials.
All that's left is tonight's race (7:30, TNT). If his car remains near the front and his Hendrick Motorsports pit crew doesn't lose the race on pit road, Gordon, at long last, has a chance to exorcise the demons that have haunted him all season.
"We're a very good group," he said after his car was clocked at 124.034 mph. "I don't know if there's too many other teams out there who could handle what we're going through right now as well as we are."
Gordon started his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career with a 41-race winless streak. But once he started winning - he has averaged one win every five races since - any kind of slump draws a lot of attention.
Not only has Gordon failed to win in the past 31 races, but he also has failed to lead a lap in the past six races. That is a career low.
Bristol's .533-mile, 36-degree banked bullring is exactly the kind of venue Gordon needs. He's won four times there, but all four came in the daytime race in March, not under the lights in late August. Gordon said the difference between night and day at Bristol can be as simple as a couple of adjustments on the car. And as difficult.
"We've won a bunch of races at Bristol," he said. "We've been good here at times, even the last time we were here at night we were pretty good.
"It just depends on how everything goes for you. You've got to have a good car, obviously, and we've had that several times, but you've got to have the pit stops, the strategy, and the right adjustments to stay up with the track and everything. It makes it a little bit difficult."
Gordon was the first of three Chevrolet drivers atop the speed charts. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (123.938 mph) and Michael Waltrip (123.906) qualified second and third, respectively.
Rusty Wallace, a nine-time winner at Bristol, will start fourth at 123.873 mph, followed by Bill Elliott in fifth at 123.857, Johnny Benson in sixth at 123.754, Ricky Craven in seventh at 123.666, Kurt Busch in eighth at 123.586, Ward Burton in ninth at 123.570 and Matt Kenseth in 10th at 123.538.
Jimmy Spencer, who led 74 laps and finished second in the spring race at Bristol, also had a 123.538-mph lap in qualifying, but Kenseth got the better starting position because he's ranked higher in the point standings.
Although Gordon hasn't won a race this year, he's surprisingly close in the Winston Cup Series point standings. In fact, he's in fifth place, only 150 points from first-place Sterling Marlin. Wins down the stretch could make him a serious contender for his fifth series championship.
"I'm kind of surprised that we're right in it, because we haven't run better than we have and we haven't won a race," he said. "It just shows you a lot about how the points are structured and how consistency can really pay off. And the lack of (did-not finishes) that we've had has really been the key to keeping us in it. So, even though we haven't run as good as we would like, those finishes and the number of laps that we finished has paid off, and maybe we can get the performance turned around late in the season and really make a charge for the championship."
Friday's qualifying session was delayed for nearly 45 minutes by rain. It set the field for one of the most popular races of the year.
Seven drivers had to rely on provisional exemptions to make the field. They were Dave Blaney, Elliott Sadler, John Andretti, Ken Schrader, Steve Park and Lance Hooper. Blaney, Sadler, Andretti and Bobby Hamilton all had spins during qualifying, but Sadler was the only driver to make contact with one of the concrete walls.
Four drivers - Hermie Sadler, Carl Long, Tim Sauter and Morgan Shepherd - failed to make the lineup.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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