"Front Row Joe" is back on top. Finally.

Joe Nemechek took his first pole in four years and the seventh of his NASCAR Nextel Cup career yesterday, earning the top spot for the EA Sports 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

"We've been right on top of our game," said Nemechek, who got his No. 01 Chevrolet around the steeply banked 2.66-mile tri-oval at 190.749 mph. "You know, it's about the car in qualifying. The car has got to be right and the engine has got to be right.

"When the race comes, that's when the driver makes a difference."

Nemechek, who earned his nickname with six Cup poles from 1997 to 2000, shook his head when reminded his last pole came at this track on Oct. 13, 2000, 133 races ago.

"That's a long time," Nemechek said. "They're just so hard to get. The competition's so tough. But we've been so close this year, doing a good job. We've had two outside poles and I felt like this was close."

Ricky Rudd was second in a Ford at 190.609, followed by Dale Jarrett's Taurus at 190.374 and the Chevy of Nemechek's rookie MBV/MB2 Motorsports teammate Scott Riggs at 190.310.

The rest of the top 10 was made up of drivers who are part of NASCAR's new 10-driver, 10-race playoff-style championship.

Series leader Jeff Gordon, winner of NASCAR's last two races at Talladega and Daytona, the two tracks where NASCAR requires horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates, had a solid fifth-place run. That set up his chance to match the late Dale Earnhardt tomorrow as the only driver to win three plate races in a season.

Gordon will go into the race, the third in the championship showdown, with a one-point lead over Kurt Busch, who qualified eighth at 189.676.

* PROTEST SITE: A group calling itself the National Association for Minority Race Fans was offered a site for planned protests this weekend during NASCAR's events at Talladega Superspeedway.

The protest can be set up in a nearly seven-acre field about a quarter of a mile from the track's main entrance.

Joe Nemechek, right, qualified for the EA Sports 500 as the pole sitter. His last pole also came at Talladega, 133 races ago, on Oct. 13, 2000.