Jeff Gordon's bid for a third consecutive NASCAR Winston Cup victory gained momentum in Saturday's opening practice session at the Phoenix International Raceway as the Hendrick Motorsports driver edged Ryan Newman for top spot over a tightly packed field.

All 43 qualifiers for Sunday's Checker Auto Parts 500 at the one-mile PIR oval practiced within a second of Gordon's #24 DuPont Chevrolet, which stopped the clocks in a best time of 27.539secs. Gordon will start fourth in Sunday's race.

Friday's Bud Pole winner Newman continued his strong weekend with second fastest time in the #12 ALLTEL Penske Racing Dodge while veteran Mark Martin proved that Roush Racing hadn't forgotten its winning secret for the Phoenix track as he set third fastest time, just ahead of rookie teammate Greg Biffle.

Friday practice leader Brian Vickers was fifth quickest, Dave Blaney sixth and Kevin Harvick seventh although Matt Kenseth's decision to focus on race set-up in first practice didn't show immediate dividends as he only set 25th fastest time.

Rookie Larry Foyt and veteran Kevin Lepage brought up the rear of the field, seven and eight tenths of a second slower than Gordon respectively.



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