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STEWART BREAKS TRACK QUALIFYING STANDARD

Tony Stewart bettered his 5-month-old qualifying record at a track where he claims to struggle, and won the pole Friday at Martinsville Speedway.

Stewart circled the tight, .526-mile oval at 95.371 mph in his Pontiac. That eclipsed his 95.275 of April, and edged Rusty Wallace and Jeff Burton for the top spot in Sunday's NAPA Auto Care 500.

Wallace, an eight-time pole winner this year, went out right after Stewart in his Ford and nearly made it nine with a lap at 95.338 mph. Burton, whose Ford went out 12th, turned his best lap at 95.319 mph.

Stewart, who gained a share of the series lead in wins with Wallace with his fourth victory of the season last weekend in Dover, Del., said his success in qualifying on the Winston Cup series' shortest track is a mystery.

"This is probably the toughest track that I have tried to conquer," he said. "I haven't figured out how to be good here and be good here all day. I get very impatient and that causes me a lot of problems."

Stewart's best finish at Martinsville was a sixth, also in April, but he said he won't have an idea how he'll do until practice today. Even then, the rough-and-tumble style of racing here can scuttle everything.

"Even if you have the fastest car on Sunday, this place can still be rough," he said. "We're just going to take it one step at a time."

Wallace, tied for second among active drivers with six victories at Martinsville and a three-time pole-sitter, was surprised by the speeds.

"We got close, but really, I didn't think I could run that fast," he said. "When Jeff laid that lap down, I said, 'Man, nobody's going to be able to beat that one.' "

But Burton figured Stewart -- the 42nd of 48 drivers to take laps -- was the man to beat after he consistently ranked at or near the top of the speed charts in practice.

Burton's bother, Ward, will start from the fourth spot, also in a Pontiac, followed by defending race champion Jeff Gordon, Kenny Wallace, Bobby Hamilton and Mike Skinner, all in Chevrolets.

Brett Bodine's Ford and Steve Park's Chevrolet complete the top 10.

Gordon, whose win a year ago was his first after crew chief Ray Evernham's resignation, qualified fifth as the first car on the track. He will try to become the first successful defending champion here since Darrell Waltrip's 11th and most recent Martinsville win in 1989.

"I hated that we had to go first because we've got such an awesome race car," said Gordon, seeking his fourth victory here overall.

Waltrip, retiring after this season to become a broadcaster, will line up 18th in the last of his of 52 career starts at Martinsville.

Franchitti off to good start

HOUSTON -- Team Green was only half as good as expected in the opening round of qualifying for the Houston Grand Prix.

Dario Franchitti won the provisional pole with a lap of 92.493 mph on the 1.527-mile temporary street circuit in downtown. But teammate and defending race champion Paul Tracy found himself in ninth place after stopping on the course midway through the session.

Barry Green's drivers have been dynamic on street layouts, with 11 wins between them on the urban circuits. Franchitti won the inaugural Houston race two years ago and came back from last place to finish second to Tracy last year.

"We started the session with not much fuel in the car and I caught traffic immediately," said Tracy, fourth in the standings and trailing leader Gil de Ferran by 15 points. "I was trying to find a break in the traffic, but I couldn't put a lap together because I was running out of fuel. Then we were having some instability under breaking that was causing me to lock up the tires. I went down the escape road and stalled the car."

Franchitti will try today to wrap up his third pole of the season and his sixth consecutive top-four start. In doing so, he'll have to sit out the last eight minutes of the 30-minute session, a penalty for locking up his brakes and sliding into a tire barrier late in Friday's qualifying to bring out a red flag.

Jimmy Vasser was second in qualifying at 92.187.

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