Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon claimed pole position for tomorrow's NASCAR Sprint Cup race, alone in the field of qualifiers to beat the 50s mark with a lap of 49.973s (191.624mph) on the 2.666-mile Talladega Superspeedway tri-oval. It's Gordon's first pole in a year - when he started on pole here for this same event in 2011.

The former Cup champion went to the head of the timesheets by finally ousting AJ Allmendinger from a long-standing provisional pole with just three drivers yet to complete their qualifying laps. Gordon then had to watch on as his biggest threat - Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola, who had been fastest in all the practice sessions on Friday - made the final assault of the afternoon on his pole time.

"I did not expect that good of a lap," Gordon told reporters as he waited for the outcome of Almirola's challenge. "I knew we were going to be a threat for it, but that's pretty sporty."

In the end it proved quite sporty enough indeed, and Almirola's time ended up falling short by just 0.168s off the pole position. That will put him on the second row of the grid for the start of the Aaron's 499, alongside his RPM team mate Marcos Ambrose.

"I thought we had a good shot at the pole and proved to be right - we qualified fourth so we were really close," said Almirola, who is working with new crew chief Mike Ford for the first time this weekend. "We have a really fast car. We didn't want to be fastest in both practices and steal the pole and win the race. We figured we would give something else to the competition for qualifying. Hopefully we will go get us a win tomorrow."

"We missed the pole by two-one hundredths," said Ambrose, alongside Almirola in third place on the grid. "We just keep getting better and better at these race tracks ... We have a chance to win tomorrow. We are going to do whatever we can to stay up front all day and try to lead that last lap."

Gordon was delighted to be back on pole position once more, especially after the sort of luck he's had so far in 2012.

"The biggest positive is that we've had a rough start to the season," he said. "Not a lot has gone our way. We've had fast race cars but not a lot to show for it. Right now we'll take any kind of positive boost."

Current championship leader Greg Biffle will start on the third row alongside Gordon's newest Hendrick team mate, Kasey Kahne. The rest of the Hendrick stable are 18th and 19th (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson respectively) in their Chevrolets, on a grid that generally featured an impressive number of Ford-powered cars looking strong up front.

Reigning champion Tony Stewart did secure a top ten start in 8th with his Chevrolet, putting him alongside his closest competitor from 2011 - Carl Edwards - for the start, after the Ford-powered Roush Fenway qualified in 7th place. Trevor Bayne easily secured his place in the race with Ford-backed Wood Brothers in 11th position, bumping JJ Yeley off the 43-car grid for the Aarons 499.

The main concern for many of the drivers heading into tomorrow's race is the effect of the temperatures on the cars with the changes that NASCAR has introduced this season for the long distance superspeedways, to deter the two-car tandem drafting that arose in 2011. Those measures proved successful for the Daytona 500 in February, but now drivers are worried that the May temperatures heading into the 90s Fahrenheit in Talladega will prove excessive and lead to engine failures.

"It is hot," said Carl Edwards. "It will be nice and slick and a crazy race. Heat is good. Our guys workout and stay fit and hopefully it is a long, hot difficult race. I think that could play into our hands. It is going to be wild."

"The ambient temperature is 25 degrees warmer, at least, from what we raced at Daytona," said Matt Kenseth, who qualified in tenth place.. "Everyone's going to be very temperature-limited right from the get-go."

"I don't think you can stay together at all," said Kyle Busch after Friday practice. "We're running 230, 240 just pack drafting," he continued, referring to the water temperature in degrees Fahrenheit that he was seeing. "Once you get pushed from behind or you have somebody close to you, it kind of moves you forward a little bit to the car that's in front of you. You're already 245, 250.

"That's already borderline for our engines," he warned. "You can probably take them to 260, 265 on water temperature before you start pushing water, but we don't want to jeopardise that and push water too early in the race ... Our limit is about 240 until two to go." That might make it a problem for Kyle, who will start the race from 21st position and have to work his way through a lot of traffic if he's to challenge for the win.

Even traditional superspeedway pack racing might be too much for the cars to bear, drivers warned.

"There is nothing we can do other than be in just complete clean air, that is the thing, the one positive that I see out of it - We should see a lot less pushing," said polesitter Jeff Gordon. "Which I think is a good thing for the racing, but at the same time you want to be able to get aggressive enough to where you can get up there to that rear bumper of that car in front of you and not necessarily push them, just pack air there to try to get the momentum to try to make some passes.

"I don't know how much of that we are actually going to be able to do," he finished. "I think there is a fine line between preventing the pushing and not being able to race hard at all."

Full practice and qualifying times available.

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