RIVERSIDE — The 1986 NASCAR Winston Cup stock car competition has been one of the most competitive in the series' long history. So, it's not surprising that today's fight for the pole position in Sunday's $366,945 Budweiser 400 at Riverside International Raceway could be a battle among a dozen drivers.
If there is a favorite based on past performances at the 2.62-mile road circuit, it probably is Terry Labonte and his Oldsmobile. Labonte has won the last two Budweiser 400s and has sat on the pole in three of the last four NASCAR races held at Riverside.
It also will be Labonte's one-lap record of 116.938 m.p.h., set last November, that the field will be shooting at when time trials begin this afternoon.
Although Labonte has had a string of recent engine failures after a great start in 1986, he is counting on one of his favored tracks to get him back on the track toward the Winston Cup championship this season.
"For the past couple of years, Riverside has given us the lift we have needed, and I feel it is going to happen again," the 1984 Winston Cup champion said.
If anybody can end Labonte's domination at Riverside, the top choices figure to be Darrell Waltrip, in a Junior Johnson Chevrolet, and Bobby Allison, in a Buick. The veteran pair, who have battled it out for the championship on several occasions, both know the quick way around Riverside, which was the only road circuit on the NASCAR schedule until Bridgehampton, N.Y., was added this year.
Then there is current Winston Cup point leader Dale Earnhardt, in a Richard Childress Chevrolet, who is coming off a victory in the World 600 last Sunday at Charlotte, N.C.
Other contenders include Harry Gant, in a Chevrolet; Ricky Rudd, in the Bud Moore Ford that he drove to victory over Labonte in last November's Winston West 500 here, and the Ford of Bill Elliott.
Although Elliott has not been able to dominate the NASCAR circuit the way he did last year, when he was virtually unbeatable, his car is still one of the quickest on the circuit, and it would hardly be an upset if he won the pole spot today.
If you are looking for a longshot, Rusty Wallace, in a Raymond Beadle-owned Pontiac, could be the man. Although Wallace's experience on Riverside's tricky circuit is limited, he will have a brand new car that was built especially for Riverside and a crew headed by Barry Dodson that has had a lot of success starting up front in races here.
Others with a chance include Richard Petty and son Kyle, Tim Richmond and Joe Ruttman, the latter a former Upland resident.
Today's runs will set the first 20 cars for Sunday's lineup. The rest of the field will be determined by a qualifying session on Saturday morning.
The Winston Cup cars won't be the only ones vying for starting positions for this weekend's racing program. Qualifying is also scheduled today to determine the lineup for Saturday's Von's 200-kilometer race featuring All American Challenge Series cars, mainly Camaros and Firebirds. The leading entries in this division include Hershel McGriff, 58, of Bridal Veil, Ore.; many-times NASCAR Winston West champion Ray Elder, who is coming out of retirement to drive; Duke Hoenshell of Orange, and Vince Giamformaggio of Covina, who holds the one-lap record of 118.381 m.p.h.
McGriff, a six-time winner in this 200, will be debuting a new Camaro. Hoenshell, who will be going for his third straight victory in this race, is in a Firebird, as is Elder.