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Nemechek Is California 500's First Pole Cat

Motor racing: That's the good news for owner Sabates. The bad news is Robby Gordon's crash.

June 21, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FONTANA — The racing fortunes of car owner Felix Sabates hit both extremes Friday at California Speedway.

One of his drivers, Joe Nemechek, took the pole for the inaugural running of the California 500 Winston Cup race on Sunday with a lap of 183.015 mph around the two-mile oval.

Another of his drivers, Robby Gordon, crashed in Turn 3 during morning practice and suffered head injuries that will keep him out of both Sunday's race and today's International Race of Champions.

Gordon, who had been sidelined since the May 27 Indianapolis 500 because of severe burns on his thigh, underwent a CT scan that proved negative, but doctors recommended that he not race this weekend.

Nemechek, the next-to-last driver among the 45 to qualify, knocked Ford driver Ernie Irvan off the pole.

"This is just awesome, just awesome," said an elated Nemechek after winning his first Winston Cup pole. "The track is awesome, the Chevy Monte Carlo was awesome and I've just got an awesome feeling."

Track owner Roger Penske, his son Greg, and General Manager Les Richter thought it was awesome too, as a crowd estimated at 45,000 came out to celebrate the first official day of running at the $110-million layout.

"The most important thing is that the drivers like the racetrack," Richter said. "You can have all the seats in the world, and all the suites in the world, but if you don't have a good racetrack you don't have anything."

Drivers seemed unanimous in their praise of the Speedway's racing surface.

"What a nice place," defending Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte said. "It's impressive. If you look back, everything Roger Penske does is first class."

For most of the day, the pole belonged to Irvan, who ran 182.927 in a Ford. Then, late in the session, Nemechek, 34, took his shot and hit the bull's-eye.

Sabates' third driver, Wally Dallenbach Jr., qualified fourth at 182.755 in another Chevy. He will start in the second row alongside Winston Cup leader Jeff Gordon, who did 182.894 in a Chevrolet.

"I can't wait to race on Sunday," Nemechek said. "Things have really started coming together for our team since [crew chief] Tony Glover took over at Charlotte. It makes a big difference working with the same people. It just takes time. You have to get the car right. It's a total package to make it work and Tony put the package together."

In a midseason switch of crews and crew chiefs, Sabates moved Glover to Nemechek's car and sent Mike Hillman from Nemechek to Gordon's car.

"We have three brand-new teams this year, and we took a lot of time off in May for that Indy car program, but we're starting to jell," Sabates said. "The way I look at it, I've got three No. 1 teams. Two of them did great today and I think if Robby could have driven, he would have had a good weekend.

"Robby wants to drive, but he failed a motor-skill test. He's a race car driver and they all want to drive. We can't put him in the car if he's not right and the doctor said it would be a week to 10 days before he could do another test."

Greg Sachs will fill in for Gordon. He had the 33rd-fastest time at 179.636 and might make another attempt when second-round qualifying resumes today. Only the fastest 25 Friday were guaranteed starting berths.

Nemechek has been on an emotional roller coaster this spring. His brother, John, was killed in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck race March 21 at Homestead, Fla., and nine days ago Joe's wife, Andrea, gave birth to a seven-pound boy. They named him John Hunter, after Joe's brother.

Last week Nemechek qualified second, just behind Dale Jarrett, at Michigan, but engine failure sidelined him early in the race.

"The guys in the shop just gave me an awesome engine today," Nemechek said. "We ran up front in every practice session and put on a lot consistent laps. I can't say enough for the way we ran all day long.

"We've been close the last two or three weeks, but something always seems to happen. Maybe Sunday is when it'll all come together, the way it did in qualifying. Now that would really be awesome."

Nemechek has never won a Winston Cup race in 104 starts, but until he joined Team Sabco this year he had campaigned his own cars in low-budget operations.

Irvan, who will start next to Nemechek, is on something of an emotional ride himself.

Last Sunday he drove to a dramatic victory at Michigan International Speedway, where three years earlier he was almost killed in a crash during practice.

"It's a tribute to the team I did as well as I did today," Irvan said. "I slipped up in Turn 1. I went in real high. I did everything I could to mess up, but the engine was great.

"We got a good victory last week, but this is another week and we've got to prove ourselves again here."

Irvan had another cause for disappointment:

"Doug Yates, our motor builder, said he would shave his head if I got the pole."

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