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California cruisin': Gordon earns pole

No one could blame Jeff Gordon if he already considers California Speedway one of his favorite tracks.

In two visits to the track 40 miles east of Los Angeles, Gordon has a race victory and, now, the pole for Sunday's California 500.

Gordon, the winner of the inaugural NASCAR Winston Cup race here last summer, was the fourth of 46 drivers to make a qualifying attempt Friday on the 2-mile, high-banked oval.

He turned a lap of 181.772 mph, and was initially disappointed.

"It was just a good lap," the defending Winston Cup champion said. "The car just stuck good. But when I saw the time, I was really surprised. It was the same speed we went in practice. I went into the corners a little harder on that (qualifying) lap and I thought it would be about three-tenths (of a second) quicker than that.

"But it turns out that just about everybody slowed down from practice. I guess it must have been the track heating up."

The closest anybody came to Gordon was Jeremy Mayfield, who put his Ford next to Gordon's Chevrolet on the front row with a lap of 180.659.

Second-row starting positions went to the Fords of Mark Martin at 180.248 and Rusty Wallace, the series points leader and Mayfield's teammate, at 180.230.

The pole was the 17th of his Gordon's career but the first since last May at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Gordon is the ninth driver in 10 events this season to win a pole, with only Bobby Labonte winning two.

Johnny Benson took the fifth spot on Friday with a lap of 179.825, followed by last year's California pole-winner, Joe Nemechek, at 179.686. Labonte was seventh at 179.578.

Nemechek, whose pole speed last year was 183.015, said, "It's strange what happened to the racetrack. When Gordon went out, I said, "If he can do it, I can do it,' but we just couldn't go. I don't know if it's the heat in the track or the heat affecting the way the motor runs or what."

The top 25 qualifiers locked up starting spots in Sunday's 43-car field, with the rest of the lineup to be set in another round of time trials today.

Four drivers crashed on Friday, two during the opening practice and two during qualifying.

Todd Bodine and Dick Trickle hit the wall in practice, with Bodine taken to a hospital after complaining of neck pain. He was released after X-rays found no injury.

Trickle got into a backup car and came out 31st, while Bodine's team readied his backup for the second round of qualifying.

Two other drivers who will have to try again in the second round are Dale Jarrett and Brett Bodine, who both crashed between Turns 3 and 4 during Friday's time trials.

"I just got loose in the center of the corner," Jarrett said. "We've got a good backup. Now we've just got to be careful. We're a long way from home and there are no more backups."