Prelude To A Newman Win?

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LOUDON, N.H. – Bobby Labonte and Johnny Benson would have loved to stay atop the list of NASCAR Winston Cup qualifying Friday at New Hampshire International Speedway.

But with a guy like Ryan Newman going out late in the session, they also knew their chances weren’t that good.

And sure enough, Newman was fast again, taking the pole for Sunday’s New Hampshire 300 with a fast lap of 132.241 mph. Newman easily bested Benson, who was more than two-tenths of a second slower than the fast rookie.

“The guys did an awesome job preparing the ALLTEL/Mobil 1 Ford,” Newman said. “We got a good draw, which was a small advantage, but I definitely think the car was the fastest one here all day. Hopefully, it can be that way on Sunday. We need to prepare for a different race here on Sunday.”

The pole was Newman’s third of the season and fourth of his career. He started second last week at Richmond – alongside fellow rookie Jimmie Johnson – and has been terrific in qualifying this year. He’s started second three times, too.

But despite the speed, Newman is still looking for his first Winston Cup victory. He was second last week to Matt Kenseth and second the week before that to Jeff Gordon at Darlington. Newman has more Top 5s than any driver this season but is without a victory.

“That’s the record we’re not shooting for – finishing second the most times in a row before a win,” Newman said. “We’ll just do the best we can. That’s what we’ve been doing all season. It’s gotten us some good races and some good runs. … Hopefully, the ALLTEL/Mobil 1 Ford will be there on Sunday.”

Benson, who was injured and missed the first NHIS race, posted his best qualifying effort of the season with a lap of 131.198. He and Bobby Labonte had an all-Pontiac front row until Newman’s lap, with Labonte ending up third.

“I’m not going to complain,” Benson said. “Our first (practice) run wasn’t that good, and we did a lot of work to the race car. We just got it better and better. I’m real happy with it. We’re going to be OK for the race. The thing’s going to race pretty good.

“Would sure have loved to have had a pole, but you’ve got a couple guys behind us that are pretty good, too.”

Greg Biffle, starting his third Winston Cup race and driving for the injured Bobby Hamilton, was a strong fourth, with Mike Skinner fifth.

Kurt Busch was sixth, with Mark Martin seventh, New England’s favorite son Ricky Craven eighth, Jeremy Mayfield ninth and Tony Stewart 10th.

The contenders for the Winston Cup championship had mediocre days. Only Martin and Stewart qualified in the top 10, with points leader Sterling Marlin starting 25th, second-place Jimmie Johnson starting 19th, fourth-place Jeff Gordon 21st and sixth-place Rusty Wallace 15th.

Marlin, who crashed early in last week’s Monte Carlo 400, is nine points ahead of Martin and 72 ahead of Johnson. Gordon is 82 points back, with Stewart 118 behind and Wallace 146 out of the lead.

Steve Park slid in Turn 1 and slapped the outside wall, damaging his car and causing a brief delay. Park said the team was checking the car to see if he needed to go to a backup.

The New Hampshire 300 gets the green flag Sunday at 1 p.m. (ET).

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