The 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway is the smallest NASCAR Winston Cup circuit on the current tour, a track where thousandths of a second are critical to every driver.

In Friday's opening practice session of the Subway 500 weekend, not even one-thousandth of a second was enogh to separate Dale Earnhardt Jr and Jeff Gordon as the pair set exactly the same time with Gordon looking to complete the Martinsville pole/race win season double and Earnhardt Jr searching for his first Bud Pole award of the 2003 season.

Both Chevrolet powered drivers set a time of 20.428secs with the leading Dodge of qualifying King Ryan Newman just six thousandths of a second slower on 20.434secs in third place and Kevin Harvick a massive six hundredths of a second further back in fourth place.

Several drivers in desperate need of a strong finish to the year filled out the balance of the top ten headed by Jeff Burton, still sponsorsless for 2004, fifth quickest, 2001 Virginia 500 winner Bobby Labonte sixth quick, Mike Skinner on his last ride with the #01 U.S. Army Pontiac, seventh fast and the 'will he-won't he retire' Bill Elliott eighth.

Tony Stewart and Sterling Marlin set identical times and tied for ninth position on the lap charts while the stopwatches also could not separate Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray and Ken Schrader after lapping in 20.544secs and were equal 13th quickest.

After recovering from a couple of shaky weeks with a solid top ten finish last weekend at the Lowe's Motor Speedway current points leader Matt Kenseth was 21st fastest.

At the bottom of the list, part-timers Hermie Sadler, Derrike Cope and Morgan Shepherd brought up the rear of the 45 car field with two of the above three facing an early bath on Friday afternoon if they cannot find extra speed in Bud Pole qualifying.



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