AVONDALE, Ariz. -- It only took Rusty Wallace about three laps around the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway to know he was in trouble.
The first practice session Friday for the Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500 went poorly for the 1989 Winston Cup champion, with his Penske Racing South Ford among the slowest cars on the track.
"Yeah, we weren't even close," Wallace said with a grin several hours later after setting a record in winning his series-leading ninth pole of the year. "We propped the front springs and put in a lot of left-front shock, a little more swaybar, put some more spring in the left-rear, changed the air pressure (in the tires), changed the timing (in the engine), changed the gear, and everything we did kept pepping it up."
Wallace's fast lap of 134.178 mph buried the previous record of 132.714 set last November by John Andretti.
In fact, the top 14 drivers surpassed Andretti's record at the desert track on an unseasonably cool, overcast afternoon.
Wallace, who also has four victories this season, heads into Sunday's 500-mile race a disappointing seventh in the season standings, trailing leader Bobby Labonte by 530 points and 95 behind sixth-place Tony Stewart, the defending Phoenix race winner.
"It really is disappointing to have those kind of numbers and still be so far back in the points," Wallace said. "But it's just consistency. I've missed in the (chassis) setup a couple of times and we've had two blown engines.
"Really, with the stress we put on these engines nowadays, two blown engines isn't all that bad, and we were leading both of those races when the engines blew. But, still, if you can't win the championship, you just want to be in the top 10 and get to the stage at the banquet in New York. So I'm pretty happy with this team and what they've done this year."
Wallace, who now has 20 top-10 starts in 32 races this season, said he was surprised to win this pole -- the 35th of his career -- particularly after being so far off in the first practice Friday morning.
"All day long we were taking three steps forward and two back. In qualifying, we took three steps forward and none back," he said.
Jeff Burton, who is third in the points and still has at least a longshot chance at the championship, wound up second in qualifying at 134.103, followed by Robert Pressley at 133.279, Johnny Benson at 133.175 and Steve Park at 133.161.
Labonte, who leads runner-up Dale Earnhardt by 201 points with three races remaining, qualified ninth, just ahead of rookie Ryan Newman, Wallace's new Penske teammate who will race in Winston Cup for the first time Sunday.
"I was nervous for Ryan," Wallace said. "It's the first time for him and we just didn't know what was going to happen. I'm happier for him than I am for me."
The third Penske entry, Jeremy Mayfield, was last among the 25 qualifiers who locked up starting positions in the 43-car field.
Labonte, who only needs to finish 14th or better in each of the last three races to assure his first title, said, "We definitely hadn't practice that good. I better remember what I did just then because we did something right and I haven't been able to do it all day. And I've been trying real hard."
Earnhardt was 31st.
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