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RAIN WASHES AWAY QUALIFYING

The contenders for the Nextel Cup championship moved to the front of the field without turning a lap Friday at Darlington Raceway.

Rain washed out qualifying for the Southern 500, forcing NASCAR to set the grid for Sunday's race by car owner points. That put Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin -- separated by just 104 points -- at the front of the 43-car field.

"That was a heck of a lap for us today," said Busch, who hasn't started from the pole since the season finale at Homestead in 2002. "It was a real good break for us."

Busch leads Gordon by just 41 points with two races remaining in the new, 10-man, 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff-style championship.

Starting from the front gives Busch an edge in the race for the five-point bonuses for leading a lap and the most laps.

"It's definitely a great opportunity for us," Busch said. "But having all of the drivers in the Chase right up front, everybody's going to want to lead a lap quickly.

"But we'll all live up to the gentleman's agreement and all file into the first turn single file and see how things shake out and who has the best setup and can get the advantage."

Gordon, a four-time series champion and six-time Darlington winner, said he won't be too daring at the start.

"It's really risk versus gain," he said. "If it's not a super risky move to do it, I'd love to have those five bonus points.

"But I'll have nine other guys around me who want those points. If it looks too dicey, I'll let them go. I want to win the race."

Even though he has had considerable success on the narrow 1.366-mile oval -- nicknamed the "Track Too Tough to Tame" -- Gordon doesn't believe he has an advantage.

"Everything is unpredictable right now," he said. "It will be interesting to see who stays smart and doesn't make the big mistake here."

Busch series points leader Martin Truex Jr. will start up front after rain washed out qualifying for today's Bi-Lo 200 (1 p.m., TNT).

Friday night's scheduled NASCAR truck series race was postponed until 5:30 today. Carl Edwards has the pole.

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