Jeff Gordon never thought he was in a slump. Despite finishing 30th or worse in three out of four races, despite dipping to sixth in the Nextel Cup standings after engine troubles two weeks ago in Michigan, Gordon insisted he had a winning car.
He was right.
Gordon's struggles ended last weekend with a victory in Northern California's wine country, and the four-time Cup champion turned in another vintage performance during Thursday's night's Pepsi 400 qualifying. The Californian claimed his third consecutive pole with a lap of 188.659 mph, headlining a brilliant night for Chevrolet, which placed six drivers in the top eight.
Gordon's win last weekend was the 67th of his career, and it catapulted him back to fourth in the Cup standings. He took credit for his success on the winding road course but said before Thursday's steamy night session that his crew would be the deciding factor at this 2.5-mile superspeedway. Four hours later, his opinion hadn't changed.
"On tracks like this you wish you could bring the guys in who made it happen," he said. "The drivers get the accolades or the publicity, but they're not the ones who really make it happen."
Michael Waltrip -- who has won three of the last seven races here -- qualified second, .039 of a second behind Gordon.
Waltrip, even more than Gordon, has escaped from trouble. After a wretched start to the season, the veteran debuted a new body and new engine combination at Richmond on May 15. Since then, he has earned top 10 finishes in five out of six races, moving from 30th to 18th in the standings.
"We started 2004 thinking we would be championship contenders, and a couple wrecks messed that up," Waltrip said. "Instead of pointing fingers at one another, we just decided we had to do something to the cars, we had to change them. . . . It's real rewarding to see a team do an about-face."
Teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., like Waltrip a constant threat at restrictor-plate races, qualified fifth. Earnhardt, second in the points standings to Jimmie Johnson, won February's Daytona 500 and will attempt to become the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to win both of Daytona's Cup races in a single season.
Johnson, who has never won here, qualified a disappointing 20th.
But as usual, most of the attention was focused on perpetual curiosity Tony Stewart, who successfully navigated his way through the qualifying session without causing a ruckus.
After last week's race in Sonoma, Stewart leaned into Brian Vickers's car and confronted the rookie driver, apparently in retribution for an on-track incident.
There was some speculation Stewart might be suspended for Saturday's race. Instead, NASCAR fined him $50,000, placed him on probation until Aug. 18 and docked him 25 points, a penalty that knocked him from fifth to sixth in the points race.
Stewart issued a brief, bland statement on Wednesday and said he would not have further comment. But after he qualified 18th on Thursday, he broke his silence with a friendly interview during the Speed Channel's qualifying telecast.
"It just shows that you've got to control your frustration," said Stewart, who managed to stop short of apologizing or saying he agreed with his punishment. "Brian's a great kid, I don't have any ill feelings toward him and I don't have any ill feelings toward NASCAR. . . . It's almost been two years since I did something really stupid, so I guess I was kind of due."