LOUDON, N.H. (AP) – Tony Stewart struck just the right note Saturday for a guy hoping to get off to the right start in NASCAR’s 10-man, 10-race championship playoff, winning the Nextel Cup pole at New Hampshire International Speedway.

“It’s a perfect place to start when you’re in the Chase for the championship,” Stewart said after driving his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet to the fastest lap of 131.143 mph on the 1.058-mile oval.

“We’ve done everything we needed to do so far this weekend,” the series leader said. “The car was really good in race trim and now we’re on the pole. Now we’ve got everybody else in the top 10 scratching their heads wondering what we’re doing.”

Stewart, who won at NHIS in July, was easily the best of the championship contenders in qualifying. Among the others in the Chase, Matt Kenseth was fourth, Rusty Wallace seventh, Jeremy Mayfield eighth and Jimmie Johnson 10th.

The rest of the Chase drivers were farther back, with reigning series champion Kurt Busch 12th, Ryan Newman 13th, Mark Martin 15th, Carl Edwards 24th and Greg Biffle 26th. Edwards, in his first full season in Cup, was disappointed but not concerned about his qualifying effort.

“I felt like I did the best I could do and the team did an awesome job,” he said. “We just took a shot in the dark there. I’m real happy to get (the Chase) underway. I’d like to start the race right now.”

Biffle, second in the standings behind Stewart heading into Today’s Sylvania 300, was a bit more worried about starting so far back in the 43-car field.

“It was unfortunate,” he said. “It got out from under us in that second lap. Now we’re going to suffer really bad. It’s going to be a fight.”

Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s two biggest stars, failed to make the Chase and go into the final 10 events of 2005 with new crew chiefs and hoping to build momentum for next season.

Both got off to a strong start, with Gordon, who missed the Chase by 73 points, second to Stewart at 131.075 and Earnhardt, who has not been a contender through most of the season, right behind at 130.777.

It was the first official action for Gordon with 26-year-old Steve Letarte, his former car chief, now handling the crew chief duties. Letarte replaced veteran Robbie Loomis, who stepped down and will leave the Hendrick team for an administrative job with Petty Enterprises at the end of the season.

“I thought Steve did a great job just by asking a lot of questions about what the car was doing,” Gordon said. “The communication was good. He made some great calls. I hate that we missed (the pole) by just that slight amount, but being on the front row right now is almost as good as being on the pole.”

Earnhardt got back with former car chief Tony Eury Jr. this week, with Eury moving from crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip to the same position with Earnhardt’s No. 8 Chevy.

“We just struggled all year, so this is good,” Earnhardt said. “I just appreciate Tony Jr. coming to help me out the rest of the year and next year.”

That was only a qualifying run, but it was a definite improvement.

“Hopefully, we can get a couple of wins the rest of the season.”

Asked how it felt to be back with Eury, who is also his cousin, Earnhardt grinned and said, “It fell right back into place for me and maybe for him, too. We’ve been working around each other all year long, just not on the same team. And I think we’ve got a bit more respect for each other than we did before.”

AP-ES-09-17-05 1510EDT

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