If Dale Jarrett is feeling any pressure as he nears the Winston Cup championship, it's not apparent.
Mark Martin and Jeremy Mayfield took the front row positions in today's opening round of qualifying for Sunday's Pop Secret Popcorn 400 at North Carolina Speedway, and Jarrett was a solid third.
That was just another in a series of steps for Jarrett, who is counting down to the title without taking anything for granted.
"At the end of the race last Sunday [in Talladega, Ala.], Todd [crew chief Todd Parrott] said, 'Just four more Fridays and four more Sundays,' " Jarrett said. "After I crossed the finish line today, I was thinking, 'Another Friday down.'
"We wanted to get a good, solid starting position that will allow us to run the way we want. That means not to have to do a tremendous amount of passing early in the race.
"It just allows you to settle in and give yourself plenty of room. If you're back in the pack, anything can happen in traffic."
Jarrett heads into Sunday's 400-mile race on the 1.017-mile oval with a 246-point lead over runner-up Bobby Labonte. Martin is third, 319 behind.
With four races remaining on the 34-race schedule, both remain mathematically alive. But it would take a major collapse by Jarrett for him to be overtaken.
Martin, who won the pole for Saturday's Busch Series race earlier in the day, came back to grab his fifth Rockingham pole in the Winston Cup division, turning a fast lap of 157.383 mph.
That broke the race qualifying record of 157.194, set by Jarrett in 1996, but he was shy of his own track mark of 157.885, set in February 1997.
"It was beautiful," Martin said. "I hadn't had a pole this year and this was probably our best shot at it."
As for the championship race, Martin, a three-time series runner-up, said, "We can't even think about that now. We just have to go out and try to win every race and we'll count up points when it's over."
Mayfield, who is a disappointing 11th in the standings and has had a mostly frustrating season, came close to Martin with his lap of 157.083. The time difference between the top laps was only .290 seconds.
Three-time series champion Jeff Gordon was fourth at 156.810, followed by Labonte at 156.803, Jeff Burton at 156.475, Ricky Craven at 156.381 and top rookie Tony Stewart at 156.048.
Rusty Wallace, who is seeking his 50th career victory Sunday, qualified 25th--the last position guaranteed a starting spot in the opening round of time trials.
Another disappointment was Dale Earnhardt, coming off a victory last Sunday. He finished 37th.
The one plus for the drivers who will have to requalify Saturday--or stand on their first-day laps--is the extended pit road, which will allow everyone to pit on the frontstretch Sunday. In the past, second-day qualifiers had the disadvantage of pitting on the backstretch.
CAPTION: Mark Martin, third in the Winston Cup championship standings, has the pole for Sunday's NASCAR race.