HAMPTON, Ga. (AP) -- Tony Stewart was smiling and appeared relaxed as he talked amiably about heading into the last four races of the season at the head of a tight championship chase.
Stewart, who leads runner-up Jimmie Johnson by 82 points and is only 177 ahead of fifth-place Ryan Newman, will start from the pole Sunday in the NAPA 500, thanks to another qualifying rainout.
On and off rain throughout Friday limited the Winston Cup cars to one late-afternoon practice, then washed away the first-ever night qualifying at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It is the third time in four races and the fifth time this season that NASCAR has determined the lineup for a race using car owner points following a rainout of qualifying.
It also means the drivers involved with Stewart in the title battle -- Johnson, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace and Newman -- will be able to compete wheel-to-wheel from the start of the 500-mile race on the fast 1.54-mile quad-oval.
And Stewart certainly isn't buying the talk that he has the championship wrapped up.
"No, we're basically taking the approach that got us here, and that's just to try and win each race," he said.
"Today, we were second quick on the qualifying practice sheet. ... We're basically taking the attitude that the reason we got here is because we raced hard each week, and that's what's going to carry us the rest of the way, hopefully."
Bill Elliott, who will start 11th, was fastest in the practice with a lap of 190.955 mph in a Dodge. He was followed by Stewart at 190.365, Dale Jarrett's Ford at 190.208, Michael Waltrip's Chevrolet at 189.662 and rookie Newman's Taurus at 189.487.
Johnson, also a rookie, struggled a bit in his Chevrolet. His fast lap of 187.862 was 21st among the 51 drivers who made laps Friday.
Stewart, who began the year with a last-place finish in the Daytona 500 and didn't take the points lead until Oct. 6 in Talladega -- the 30th race of the year -- said he is a bit surprised to find himself in this position.
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