LAS VEGAS ) -- Life is sweet again for Ricky Rudd.
The longtime Winston Cup star, who struggled the past six years as an owner-driver, is back in the full-time role of driver -- and loving it.
''It's almost like being a rookie again,'' Rudd said Friday after putting his Robert Yates Racing Ford on the pole for the CarsDirect.com 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Rudd, who also earned starts on the outside of the front row in the season-opening Daytona 500 and last Sunday's race in Rockingham, N.C., turned a record-lap of 172.563 mph on the slightly-banked 1 1/2-mile oval.
That was good enough to beat out the Ford of NASCAR newcomer Scott Pruett, who lapped the track at 172.381, and fellow rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose speed was 172.216.
''Racing is fun for me for the first time in years,'' said Rudd, who picked up the 25th pole of his career and his first for the powerhouse Yates team.
The only cloud this season for Rudd has been the fact that he struggled in Daytona, finishing 15th, and wound up sixth in Rockingham.
''It's true we haven't got a top five in the races yet, but in Rockingham I came within about a foot of passing my teammate (Dale Jarrett) for fifth at the start-finish line,'' Rudd said.
''I was reeling in cars, and not just cars but good cars, during the race. It's just a pleasure to show up at a new racetrack each week knowing you're going to be competitive.''
Rudd struggled with his own team, but only reluctantly gave up the effort at the end of last year when major sponsor Tide decided to move on to the new team formed by Cal Wells.
''I didn't think so at the time but, as it turns out, it was probably a blessing in disguise,'' Rudd said. ''I won't say I was going to lose my shirt, but it was fixing to cost me a lot of my own money. And it was tough to keep things going and be competitive.''
Pruett got the benefit of the Tide move, moving from Well's CART Champ car team to Winston Cup over the winter.
''That is a little ironic,'' Rudd said with a smile. ''I got some experience with that in Daytona. I ran around Scott some there. Since it's got that 32 on the door (instead of his old No. 10), it's not quite the same thing for me. But it will be a little awkward.''
Pruett had a decent start in Daytona, starting 15th and finishing 19th. But he failed to qualify in Rockingham.
''We came here and tested; that was the big thing,'' Pruett said. ''We had zero miles at Rockingham before we got there last week, and it showed. It was tough to load up and go home, but everybody on the team knew there were going to be some tough tracks for us this year.''
Earnhardt Jr., son of the seven-time Winston Cup champion, has qualified for all eight Winston Cup races he has entered, including five last year.
''This is one of the more enjoyable racetracks for me,'' he said. ''I raced here in the Busch (Series) races twice. For Scott, with the limited experience he has in these cars, that was pretty impressive.''
''Little E,'' who has finished 13th and 19th so far this year, added, ''I'm still way behind in race set-ups and the way these tires fall off during the race and how to deal with that.
''There's a pattern to this racing,'' said the two-time Busch Series champion. ''But I don't know it yet. It's going to take a while to find the rhythm of week-to-week racing for 400 or 500 miles, wheeling the car all day long.''
The top 10 in Friday's qualifying was also a plus for NASCAR, which has been under fire for allowing Ford a supposed aerodynamic advantage in its new Taurus.
Rudd and Pruett swept the front row with Fords, but Earnhardt is in a new Chevrolet and will share the second row with the Pontiac of Rockingham winner Bobby Labonte, who qualified at 171.816.
The Taurus of defending Las Vegas champion Mark Martin was next at 171.647, followed by the Ford of Daytona winner Jarrett at 171.141, the Chevrolet of Michael Waltrip at 171.000, the Pontiac of Johnny Benson at 170.951, the Chevy of Jerry Nadeau at 170.638 and the Monte Carlo of Jeff Gordon at 170.568.
Jeff Burton, Martin's Roush Racing teammate and the winner of the inaugural Las Vegas Winston Cup race in 1998, was 11th in a Ford at 170.546.
The top eight all beat the previous qualifying record of 170.643, set last year by Labonte.
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