Gordon's quest for 77 starts at front

Jeff Gordon knows Talladega Superspeedway is an enemy camp. Alabama might as well mean "Earnhardt" in Cherokee.

Published April 29, 2007

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Jeff Gordon knows Talladega Superspeedway is an enemy camp. Alabama might as well mean "Earnhardt" in Cherokee.

Beer cans hailed down on his No. 24 Chevrolet in the spring of 2004 when he passed fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. just before a late yellow flag and slow-rolled to victory under caution. He can hear boos during driver introductions and see his fans engulfed in a sea of red.

So he smiled devilishly when considering how irked much of the throng will be today when he starts on the pole and tries for his 77th win to pass the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth on the all-time list. On what would have been Earnhardt's 56th birthday.

"The pole doesn't guarantee you anything but it might fire up some of those non-Jeff Gordon fans out there, " said Gordon, who covered the 2.66 miles at 192.069 mph. "We're here to win and that would be cool to pull 77 (wins) off here."

David Gilliland matched the points leader's speed but starts second by rule. Denny Hamlin will start third.

Today's race is the second since the track was repaved last summer, and drivers say that produces even tighter bunches which lead to the massive, multi-car wrecks that define Talladega. Kyle Busch was unhurt after an upside-down slide and tumble in Saturday's Busch Series race.

"It's not a matter of if; it's when, " Gordon said. "That's why track position is so important here. Maybe it's not necessarily important where you start it, but it's making sure you're out of it when it happens."

SEE YA, BOSS: Michael Waltrip sat on a director's chair outside of his transporter on Friday and admitted he was surprised and disappointed that David Reutimann had failed to qualify for three races this season.

"I thought he'd qualify better than that, " he said.

In fairness, qualifying was rained out in Texas, locking out Reutimann's first-year Michael Waltrip Racing team which was not in the top 35 in owner points.

Reutimann, now 43rd in owner points, made the boss happy and sad at the same time Saturday. In qualifying his No. 00 Toyota 14th, the Zephyrhills native bumped Waltrip from the field for his eighth consecutive race missed.

"I wish I could just make him happy, " Reutimann said. "I really thought his qualifying time was solid enough to get him in the show. He was close, but all of us 'go-or-go-home guys' are so close out there, really all it takes is a little bit to be either be in the show or heading home."

Reutimann, the 52nd of 53 qualifiers, overcame a heating (thus slower) track, and 16 other cars needing to make the race on time. His best finish was 32nd last week at Phoenix.

BUMMED: Toyota's seven-car fleet continued to founder with just three making the field. Jeremy Mayfield will start 18th. Dale Jarrett, Reutimann's teammate, used his last of six past champion's provisionals and will start 43rd.

The Wood Brothers, one of NASCAR's cornerstone teams, missed its first race since 2000. Ken Schrader is 39th in points, 113 from 35th place.

"You can't dodge this bullet every week, " co-owner Eddie Wood said. "There's too much going on, and there's too much that has to go right."

Labonte edges Stewart

Bobby Labonte pushed teammate Tony Stewart to the lead, then won with a dramatic pass in the Busch Series.

Labonte earned his first Busch win since 1998 by less than a car length in a green-white-checkered finish.

Casey Mears and Kevin Harvick were out front when debris from the battered car of Kasey Kahne brought out a caution flag on Lap 115, just three laps from the scheduled finish of Aaron's 312.

Labonte's engine, overheating badly on the final two laps, blew as he crossed the finish line with steam wafting from under his hood.