|The pole is a positive step for Jeff Gordon, who is uncharacteristically 17th in the standings. (Getty Images)|
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jeff Gordon understands winning a pole doesn't mean very much for the big picture.
But after opening this season with a serious slump, the four-time NASCAR champion is embracing all the small victories he can get.
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Gordon grabbed the top starting spot for Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway with a lap at 191.623 mph in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. It was Gordon's first pole since this race last year, and the 71st of his career -- third on the all-time list.
And it comes at a time when Gordon is trying to jumpstart his season. He's got just two top finishes through the first nine races, and is ranked 17th in the Sprint Cup Series standings.
"We all know that sitting on the pole at Talladega doesn't really guarantee anything for the race," he said. "The biggest positive is just the fact we've had a rough start to the season, not a lot has gone our way other than we've had fast cars but not a lot of results to show for it. To me, right now, we'll just take any kind of positive boost that we possibly can and this is a good one."
AJ Allmendinger held down the top spot for most of Saturday's qualifying session in his Penske Racing Dodge, and Gordon made his attempt with four cars to go. He ran an unconventional lap around the bottom of the track, and it was good enough to bump Allmendinger's 191.111.
"Definitely a new strategy, but those guys are fast no matter what," Allmendinger said. "So, it's not like he snuck up on us. We knew that was going to be one of the cars that could beat us there at the end."
Kasey Kahne, of Hendrick Motorsports, was fifth and followed by series points leader Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, his Roush Fenway Racing teammate. Defending series champion Tony Stewart was eighth in a Chevrolet, and Michael Waltrip was the highest qualifying Toyota at ninth.
Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 10. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is ranked second in the standings and widely believed to be a contender to end his 138-race losing streak on Sunday, qualified 18th.
"When we go to Talladega or Daytona, I feel like I have a good chance of winning every time I go," said Earnhardt, a five-time Talladega winner. "You just have to make good decisions. You really don't have to count on the other important things that you do at other tracks. I feel like my confidence goes up when I come here."
Earnhardt, who finished second in the Daytona 500, pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to the victory here last spring.
Gordon, meanwhile, is hoping for a strong finish but understands it won't be an automatic fix for his season.
"One win is not going to turn our entire season around, but it's definitely something we would welcome," Gordon said. "Anything positive would be a great thing for us."
It would also be the long overdue 200th victory for Hendrick Motorsports. The milestone victory has eluded the team since Johnson's win at Kansas last October, but it seemed to be in the bag last month at Martinsville, where Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson were all in the mix for the win until a series of race-changing incidents in the closing laps.
"Everybody in our organization wants it and is working hard to get it," Gordon said. "Every weekend I feel like one of us has an opportunity of getting it, and why it hasn't happened yet is a little bit of a mystery. I know we are on the brink of it, and tomorrow, any one of us can get it done. While every team at Hendrick Motorsports wants it for Rick and knows there's a lot on the line for it, the rest of us, if one of us gets it, we'll all be relieved.
"We'll say 'Thank goodness we got the 200th and can take the focus off of that.'"
With temperatures expected in the 90s on Sunday at the Alabama track, drivers have worried all weekend about overheating during the race.
NASCAR tried to break up the two-car tandem racing that had developed at Daytona and Talladega through various rules and restrictions. Some of the technical elements included making it so that two cars pushing each other could not do it for very long without putting their engine in danger of overheating, and the high temperatures this weekend have heightened the danger.
"We're just kind of going in blind tomorrow," Johnson said. "The heat is the heat. And we're going to have to manage it for sure. So, it's going to be tough to keep the cars cool with how hot it's going to be."