A muggy, sticky night offered sweet vindication for two drivers mired in the worst seasons of their careers as Joe Nemechek and Ricky Rudd locked in front-row starting spots tonight for NASCAR's Pepsi 400 Saturday night.

Nemechek, who is 37th in the Winston Cup standings, won the pole -- his first in nearly two years -- with his lap of 194.860 miles per hour at Daytona International Speedway. Then Rudd, 38th in the standings, turned in a lap nearly as fast (194.574 mph) to claim the outside pole.

The boost couldn't have come at a better time for Rudd, who learned on Wednesday that Tide, his sponsor for the past nine years, was not renewing its contract after this season.

"This sport is full of highs and lows," said Rudd, of Chesapeake, Va. "You learn how to deal with them. I know of no other way to deal with it than just go out there and get mad and run harder."

Qualifying at Daytona makes for some of the most miserable, frightening moments in a stock car. That's because the spring and shocks are set so the car runs as low to the ground as possible -- actually bottoming out in spots around the 2.5-mile super speedway. The lower it sits, the faster it goes because air resistance is reduced. But it's a brutally rough ride that jars the rib cage and abuses the car.

"It's all about shocks and springs getting the car to squat," Rudd said. "It didn't shake the fillings out of my teeth, but it was violent."

Nemechek, from nearby Lakeland, Fla., nearly hit the wall on his first of two laps. "Qualifying is made for two laps," he said, "because you can barely hang on beyond that."

The Pepsi 400 will be run at night for just the second time, with the start scheduled for 8 p.m. Last year's race was postponed until October because of the fires that raged through central Florida July 4th weekend.

The Pepsi 400 marks the midpoint of the Winston Cup season, when the circuit doubles back to visit tracks for a second time. It is also the time when the championship race shakes out in earnest. As usual, three-time champion Jeff Gordon is the focus of most conversations. This year, however, it's because his grip on the series title may be slipping.

Gordon has so dominated NASCAR since becoming its youngest modern-era champion in 1995, at age 24, that more fans root for him to lose than win each week if only to see a new face in Victory Lane.

He's currently fifth in the series points standings, trailing leader Dale Jarrett by 314 points. By Gordon's standards that makes him almost an underdog to win what would be his third consecutive Winston Cup title and fourth in five years.

Gordon tore through 1998 with a horseshoe in his back pocket, winning 13 races to Richard Petty's record. He won races when he had the best car; he won when his car was outclassed. Every stroke of fortune seemed to fall his way, just as every gamble seemed to pay off.

But the racing gods haven't been as kind this year.

Gordon opened the 1999 season by winning the Daytona 500 (his second) in thrilling fashion, diving between the lapped car of Rudd and front-runner Rusty Wallace with a whisper's width to spare to grab the lead with 11 laps to go.

The next week, engine failure relegated him to 39th at Rockingham, N.C. A tire problem sent him into the wall at Texas Motor Speedway, where he finished 43rd. And handling problems spoiled his outings at Talladega (Ala.) and Charlotte, where he was 38th and 39th.

That Gordon has fallen only to fifth, after failing to finish four races, is a testament to his tenacity. Through 16 races, he has either finished in the top six or not finished at all.

"I can never remember Jeff Gordon riding a race out," said former Winston Cup driver Buddy Baker, now a CBS racing analyst. "He races to win -- every race. And to beat him for a championship, you have to race to win."

Indeed, Gordon has compiled impressive numbers despite the four poor outings. He has led the most miles this season (1,099.47) and won the most races (4), most poles (5) and most money ($3,712,441) of all drivers on the circuit. Saturday night, he starts 11th.

Earlier in the day, Rudd ruminated on the changing economics of stock-car racing as he spoke about Tide's decision to back a new team to be formed by CART owner Cal Wells in 2000. Rudd said he declined an offer to drive for the Wells operation, as it has no crew chief, race shop, cars or crew members as yet.

"I see a lot of outsiders wanting to get in now because it appears very glamorous, and a lot of guys who paid their dues and helped build this sport are getting run over," Rudd said.