"It feels good to me just to get out from restrictor plate racing (at Daytona) and have a car that has downforce and be able to drive it through the corners and work with the teams on the handling," said Gordon, who crashed on the last lap Sunday in the Daytona 500 and finished 10th.
"This is really where the championship is going to be made, on the downforce tracks," the four-time series champion and three-time California winner added. "If we can put a good race car on the track this weekend, I'm going to be pretty excited about the type of year we're going to have."
Kasey Kahne was second to Gordon at 185.519.
"There's a ton of grip in the track right now," said Kahne, whose qualifying lap came late in the session, after the track had cooled down considerably. "I probably should have had the pole. I think the track is definitely faster now than when the top six or seven went out."
Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin, who put on a heart-thumping finish in the 500, with Harvick winning by the length of his hood, were close again, this time with Martin coming out just ahead, 185.500 to 185.424.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth at 185.405, followed at 184.805 by Clint Bowyer, who finished the 500 on his roof with his engine compartment in flames.
The fastest of four Toyotas that made the field was Dave Blaney, 14th at 183.927. Blaney, driving for Bill Davis Racing, is the only Toyota entry who finished in the top 35 in car owner points last season and is guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races of 2007 because of those points.
Vickers, with a new team and with no points from last year, failed to race his way into the 500, but was just behind Blaney in 15th on Friday at 183.852. His rookie teammate, former open-wheel star A.J. Allmendinger, again came up short and will miss the race.
Waltrip also will be watching the race instead of driving in it after being knocked out of the lineup by rookie teammate David Reutimann.
"It's sink or swim," Reutimann said. "I prayed as hard as I've ever prayed for anything before we went out and it's just a blessing to get in. I hate that it had to be at the expense of a teammate."
After suffering through a cheating scandal last week at Daytona, where NASCAR came down hard on his team for using an illegal substance in his fuel, Waltrip managed to race his way into the Daytona 500 only to wind up an uninspiring 30th in the race.
Among the penalties against Waltrip was the loss of 100 points and he was still minus-27 after Daytona.
The two-time Daytona winner was hoping for better things in Sunday's race on the 2-mile California oval, but he'll have to settle for watching Reutimann and Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip Racing's other driver.
Jarrett had a transmission problem and failed to post a qualifying speed, but got the former series champion's provisional _ the 43rd starting spot _ for the second straight race.
"I feel bad because Michael has done a lot for me," Reutimann said. "He's put a lot into this team and program and I want all three of us to be in and we're not. Hopefully, we'll keep gaining and make the whole organization stronger and we won't have to worry about not making races any more."