TALLADEGA, Ala. - It's been all about Tony Stewart at Talladega Superspeedway, where he's planted himself inside the spotlight by entering free agency.
He's backed up the high level of interest being shown in NASCAR's two-time champion with strong runs on the race track, including a stout qualifying lap Saturday that seemed to lock down the pole position.
Some three hours later, Joe Nemechek stole his thunder.
Nemechek, the 46th of 47 drivers to make a qualifying attempt, knocked Stewart off the pole with a lap of 187.386 mph. It was the first pole since 2005, a span of 93 races, for 'Front Row Joe,' and was his fourth career pole at Talladega - best among active drivers.
Nemechek credited his Furniture Row Racing team, a single-car operation based out of Denver that prepared a car that had to qualify on speed to make today's race. Nemechek is ranked 42nd in the points and has missed two of eight races this season.
'It takes a lot of work and a lot of innovative thinking to get your cars to go fast, and to get them through the air,' Nemechek said. 'And it's paying attention to all the details. The cool thing about us is we're just a small team. We don't have that many employees.
'Yates, Roush, Joe Gibbs Racing, Childress, there's some big companies there, and we were able to beat them today. I'm very proud of that.'
Stewart, a six-time runner-up at Talladega, had to settle for the second starting spot. He was the seventh driver to make his lap, and his 186.896 held almost the entire session. He's now qualified inside the top 10 in eight of his 19 Talladega starts but is still searching for his first Sprint Cup win at the track.
'It is important to me,' he said. 'We've run second here six times in nine years, so a third of the races here I've run second. I'm ready to get one more spot finally.'
Ken Schrader, the final driver to make his qualifying attempt, grabbed the third spot. Driving in his first race for Haas-CNC Racing, which has used a revolving door of drivers since Jeremy Mayfield left the No. 70 Chevrolet earlier this month, Schrader ran a lap at 186.499 mph.
He then joked that NASCAR had to scramble to print his nameplate in time for the post-qualifying news conference. His start today will be his first Cup race since Texas last November.
'We knew we had a decent race car yesterday. We thought it ought to be a solid top 10, but you don't know what everybody else is running because they had the advantage of being able to do a little drafting practice,' Schrader said. 'We did some stuff for qualifying that we'll probably have to undo, but first thing first and that was to be in the (race) for sure.'
AJ Allmendinger will start fourth today in his season debut. He failed to qualify his Red Bull Racing car for the first three races of the year, and the team replaced him with Mike Skinner for the next five events. Allmendinger spent his time out of the seat learning everything he could from Skinner, who was also charged with giving the No. 84 team a playbook to work off the rest of the season.
'I would like to say that it was all driving skill, but it really wasn't,' Allmendinger said. 'It was important for everybody at the team to make this race, but it was probably double important for me to make it - just getting back in. I don't think I've ever been so nervous to shift a race car as I have been today.'
Kyle Busch, Stewart's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, was fifth to give Toyota three cars in the top five. David Ragan was the highest-qualifying Ford at sixth, but Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers followed in two more Toyotas.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top 10.
Among the drivers needing to qualify on speed who did were Nemechek, Allmendinger, Schrader, Jon Wood, Sterling Marlin, Kyle Petty, Patrick Carpentier and Dario Franchitti. But Franchitti was later injured in a hard accident in the Nationwide Series race and was transported to a local hospital for observation. There was no immediate word on his status for today's race.
SideBar: Aaron's 499
When: Today, 1 p.m.
Where: Talladega, Ala.