BY MIKE HARRIS
The Associated Press
JOLIET, Ill. - Tony Stewart pulled off a surprise and got his first pole this season in qualifying Friday at Chicagoland Speedway.
The Winston Cup champion, struggling through a difficult season and not known as a strong qualifier, turned a track-record lap of 184.786 mph on the 1 1/2-mile oval to pick up the seventh pole of his career and first since last August in Indianapolis.
The start of the qualifying session was delayed nearly 2 hours by rain, but that didn't appear to affect the track. The top five qualifiers for the Topicana 400 surpassed the previous record of 183.713, set in 2001 by Todd Bodine.
"That was a good, solid run," said Stewart, 11th in the standings. "I went into the turns a little deeper than I had in practice ... and that was almost two-tenths (of a second) faster than we had run in practice.
"The car was smooth for me. If I had to go out there and do it again, I'd feel comfortable doing it."
Asked what kind of qualifier he considers himself, Stewart grimaced in mock pain and said: "A terrible one, to be honest.
"If I could get Ryan Newman to wear my uniform and go out there and qualify for me, I'd do it. He's the king of qualifying I feel like I'm a better racer than I am a qualifier."
Jeff Gordon was second at 184.445, giving Chevrolet a sweep of the front row for Sunday's race.
Gordon, a four-time series champion and third in the standings, said he messed up the first of his two qualifying laps by driving his car too hard into the first turn.
"I got on the gas real hard and it got me to push up half a lane and cost me some time," Gordon said. "The guys (on my team) wanted the pole today because they knew how good the car was, but I'm definitely happy to be up there on the front row."
Chicagoland is one of only four current tracks at which the Winston Cup cars race where Gordon does not have a victory. The others are Homestead-Miami Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.
Bill Elliott was third in a Dodge at 184.401, and rookie Casey Mears fourth at 184.263 in another Dodge. Earlier in the day, Mears won the pole for Saturday's Busch series race.
Jeremy Mayfield, also driving a Dodge, was the fifth driver to break the previous track record with a lap of 183.892.
Rookie Greg Biffle, coming off his first Cup win last Saturday night in Daytona, was seventh at 183.499 in the fastest Ford. Kevin Harvick, who won both previous Cup races at Chicagoland, qualified 11th at 183.163.
Series points leader Matt Kenseth was 24th at 181.470, and series runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 16th after qualifying at 182.593.
Newman, who led the way with six poles as a rookie in 2002 and is the series leader this season with four, had an off-day on Friday, qualifying 14th at 182.815.
"I'm a little disappointed," Newman said. "We're known for qualifying and then we don't qualify good. Me knowing we've got a good race car, and (crew chief) Matt (Borland) and the guys knowing we've got a good race car, makes me look forward to the race."
Rookie Johnny Sauter, second in the Busch qualifying, had the fastest Pontiac. Driving in his first event for Morgan-McClure Motorsports, Sauter was 20th at 181.984.
Stewart is the 12th different pole winner in 18 events this season. There were 15 different polesitters all of last year.