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Qualifying Takes a Strange Turn


FONTANA — Maybe it was the heat, but qualifying for the California 200 Winston West race Thursday at California Speedway turned into one of the most bizarre qualifying days in NASCAR history. Or anyone's racing history.

With the temperature hovering around 105 degrees--132 degrees on the track--only five cars posted qualifying times for Saturday's race. The rest of the 32-car field was determined by owners points--and whose entry had the earliest postmark.

Kevin Harvick of Bakersfield won the pole in the Spears Motorsports Chevrolet Monte Carlo with a lap of 173.779 mph around the two-mile oval, which was the only thing all day that had any logic to it. It was the 22-year-old's fifth pole in nine races this year.

"We thought we had a pretty good lap, considering the heat and the greasy track," Harvick said. "We wound up right where we figured to wind up."

The sizzling day prevented Harvick from challenging the track record of 179.623, set last May 1 by Ken Schrader.

Scott Gaylord, in a Ford Thunderbird, will start on the front row Saturday alongside Harvick after running 172.410 mph.

What could turn into a dangerous situation is disparity in speed between Harvick and the fifth-fastest qualifier. Mike Starr of Justin, Texas, whose speed of 159.957 is nearly 14 mph slower, will start from the third row. And behind Starr are drivers in fast cars such as points leader Sean Woodside of Saugus, series champion Butch Gilliland of Anaheim and Gary Smith of Canada, winner of the Portland race last Friday night.

NASCAR officials said the lack of qualifiers was caused when 27 cars were unable to pass tech inspection in time to make an attempt. Each car is given five minutes to be ready, after the preceding car completes its lap. Pre-qualifying inspection consists primarily of checking the height and weight of the car and the air filter.

"I didn't know what was happening," said Harvick, who was second in line to qualify. "No one in the garage seemed worried about missing their turn."

That, apparently, was because there were only 32 cars on the premises and the race book called for 36 starters. So everyone is in, it's just a matter of where.

The last three starters, including 1996 series champion Lance Hooper of Palmdale, were placed in the field even though their entry had no postmark.

Keiichi Ysuchiya of Japan, making his first start in the United States, will start 23rd because the Stroppe-Davis team car he is driving won a race last year with Gilliland driving. Go figure.

Maybe Penske Motorsports, which operates the track, knew something when they decided not to sell any tickets for the Winston West qualifying day.

Craftsman Trucks and Busch Grand National cars will qualify today, starting at 3:30 p.m. Presumably, more than five of them will pass tech inspection in time to make a qualifying attempt.


Fontana Races

* Today: Winston West practice, 9:30 a.m.; Craftsman Truck practice, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Busch Grand National practice, 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.; Craftsman Truck qualifying, 3:30 p.m., followed by Busch Grand National qualifying.

* Saturday: Busch Grand National practice, 8:30 a.m.; No Fear Challenge 200 (100 laps) for Craftsman Trucks, followed by Winston West race.

* Sunday: Kenwood Home and Car Audio 300 (150 laps) for Busch Grand National cars, 1 p.m.

* Radio: Saturday--KMKC (1350) and KMSL (1510) 1 p.m.; Sunday--KMKC (1350) and KMSL (1510) 1 p.m.

* TV: Saturday, ESPN, 1 p.m.; Sunday, ESPN, 1 p.m.

* Tickets: (800) 944-RACE.

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