Joe Nemechek, running the fastest qualifying lap at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in 10 years, was nearly breathless after his pole-winning effort.

Winning his third pole of the season and fifth of his career, "Front Row Joe" turned a lap of 198.331 mph in qualifying yesterday for the Winston 500.

Nemechek, who completed his fast lap on the high-banked, 2.66-mile oval with about 15 drivers still waiting to qualify, said, "I'll tell you what, if they can beat that, they can have it."

The pole-winning lap couldn't approach the track record of 212.809, set by Bill Elliott with an unrestricted engine in the spring of 1987. By the following year, NASCAR had begun requiring carburetor restricter plates to slow the cars at Talladega and Daytona.

Nemechek's lap is the fastest since Elliott's 199.388 in 1990. Since then, the top qualifying speeds have been mostly under 195 until last fall, when Bobby Labonte bumped it to 196.153. Ken Schrader upped the ante in the spring to 197.765.

Ricky Rudd's 198.265 made it the same front row for Sunday as in July at Daytona. Kenny Wallace was close behind Rudd at 198.105.

* FORMULA ONE: Michael Schumacher, injured in a crash three months ago, returned to Formula One racing during practice for the Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang.

He led the first of the two timed practices, run in the rain, then finished fifth in the second during faster and drier conditions.

"No problem, no pain," said Schumacher, who fractured his right leg in the British Grand Prix on July 11. "The Ferrari seems in good shape and so am I."

Jacques Villeneuve, in a BAR-Supertec, had the fastest time overall. Villeneuve, a former world champion struggling with a new team, was timed in 1 minute 42.407 seconds over the 3.4-mile course, 40 miles south of Kuala Lumpur. The practice had an unexpected visitor. A leopard was lurking near the tires just off the track but was scared away by the roaring engines.