'Rocket Man' Ryan Newman is back, and Jimmie Johnson's pursuers have a glimmer of hope after Friday's NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying session at Martinsville Speedway.

A prodigious qualifier who won 28 poles during a three-year stretch from 2003-2005, Newman edged Jeff Gordon for the top starting spot for Sunday's Tums Fast Relief 500 at the 0.526-mile paper-clip-shaped short track.

The pole is Newman's second of the season, his third at Martinsville and the 45th of his career - tied with Buck Baker for 11th on the all-time list - but it took a lap at 96.795 mph to win the top position from Gordon, who posted 96.519 mph early in the session.

Martin Truex Jr. (96.509 mph) qualified third, followed by Mark Martin (96.504 mph) and David Reutimann (96.117 mph).

Casey Mears, Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte, Reed Sorenson and Kevin Harvick will start from positions six through 10, respectively.

Newman, Gordon and Martin are the only three Chase drivers who qualified in the top 12. Series leader Jimmie Johnson, who has won five of the last six races at Martinsville, will start 15th. Johnson leads second-place Martin by 90 points and third-place Gordon by 135 with five races left in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Newman acknowledged that Sunday's race could shake up the series standings but cautioned not to read too much into other Chase drivers' qualifying results, because rain early in the day shortened Friday's practice session.

"I think there's potential of that (a shake-up) - short-track racing has that potential," Newman said. "But I think, without a doubt, Jimmie and Tony (Stewart, who qualified 13th) and a few other guys will be right back up there - they seem to always be (back up front) in very little time.

"I think it's a little different situation today (Friday). I know the 48 (Johnson) spent a lot of time in race trim and very little time qualifying trim, so those factors weigh into it, because of the small rain delay that we had and the abbreviated practice session."

Johnson, who is trying to win an unprecedented fourth straight Cup championship, said he thought he ran two laps good enough to win the pole and was shocked to learn how slow his car had been.

"It's what we've been saying all along - this thing isn't over," Johnson said. "We've got to go out there and earn it."

Josh Wise meanwhile was the only driver who failed to qualify for the 43-car field.

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News



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