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SPORTS WEEKEND

A New Coalition, Not Rainbow, Is Leading the Pack

California 500: Burton is one who has taken advantage of Gordon's troubles this season.

April 30, 1999|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FONTANA — Maybe the era of Jeff Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors pit crew in Winston Cup racing is over. Or at least temporarily on hold.

NASCAR's premier series nears the one-third mark Sunday with the California 500 and not one of the first four points leaders--Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin or Bobby Labonte--has ever won a championship.

Gordon, winner of the last two titles and three of the last four, is fifth, 210 points behind Burton. It's not an insurmountable deficit, but one difficult to overcome without the leaders stumbling down the stretch.

"What's happened to [Gordon] this year shows how much a team needs a little luck to go with preparation, in order to be the champion," said Burton, driver of the No. 99 Ford owned by Jack Roush. "All the preparation in the world couldn't keep him out of that wreck [last Sunday] at Talladega."

Gordon, caught in the middle of a nine-car accident, was broadsided by Kenny Wallace and credited with 38th place.

"All last year, he never seemed to get in trouble like he has this year," Burton said. "Two accidents and a broken engine are tough to overcome. We know--we had five finishes of 36th or worse last season [and finished fifth in points]."

Burton, younger of two racing brothers from South Boston, Va., has two victories and six finishes in the top five in nine races this year. He holds a 40-point edge over Jarrett, who has yet to win a race, and 44 over Martin, his Roush teammate--and soul mate.

"Jeff has won so much that he seems to be the target, but he is not the only guy to beat," Burton said. "Our goal is to finish in the top three every race. If we do that, the wins will take care of themselves. To do that, you have to run with a little bit of desperation, do all the little things right, have solid pit stops and not get caught in wrecks."

Even though he has been frustrated chasing Gordon, he says the Chevy driver's dominance has been good for the sport.

"All sports have a team that stands out--the Yankees in baseball, the Bulls with Michael Jordan in basketball, the 49ers [a few years ago] in football, and it benefits the sport. It gives the others something to shoot at, the way everyone is shooting at the 24 team.

"If we had 30 races and 30 different winners, it might be parity, but what fun would it be?"

Although Roush has five cars in the Winston Cup series, Martin and Burton operate out of their own shop, independent of Kevin LePage, Chad Little and Johnny Benson, Roush's other Ford drivers.

"We got off to a good start, for one reason, because we finished strong last year," Burton said. "Yet we didn't have a lot of pressure on us because we weren't one of the four or five favorites. Now that we're out in front, we feel it more, but it's better to be first than not."

One of Burton's hopes this season is to go to Atlanta for the final race with him and Martin contending for the championship.

"It would not only be great for our team, but how we reacted would show the world how well we work together, how completely unselfish we are in relationship to one another," Burton said.

"I honestly believe, if on Saturday before the championship race, I went to Mark and said I had a serious problem and needed some help, he would come immediately and help me, even if it meant me winning the race and not him. People would see two teams working together like they've never seen before."

Winston Cup drivers qualify today for the first 25 starting positions in Sunday's $2.6-million California 500. The rest of the field will qualify Saturday.

*

Austin Cameron was the first Winston West driver to qualify Thursday for the California 200 when the San Diego college student toured California Speedway's D-shaped, two-mile banked track in 39.853 seconds, or 180.664 mph.

Then he sat and waited, or paced around the garage, wondering what the big guys, Winston Cup veterans Ken Schrader, Ricky Craven and Mike Wallace, would do.

When it was over, Cameron had the pole by a thousandth of a second. Schrader, winner of last year's race, did a 39.854 second lap at 180.659 mph.

Cameron, 22, drove the same Chevrolet he finished second with here last year, when he earned Winston West rookie-of-the-year honors. A number of West Coast drivers resent the "cherry picking" by East Coast drivers who invade their series, but Cameron is not one of them.

"I know some of the guys don't like it when the Cup drivers show up because they say it takes purse money away from them, but I'm not in it for the purse money, I'm in it for experience," said Cameron, one of the bigger drivers at 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds.

"Every time I race against those guys, it's a learning experience. I'm happy to be in there with them. The more seat time I get, the more comfortable I feel racing with them. It'll pay off when I move up in a few years."

The $198,496 California 200, fourth in the 14-race series, will start Saturday at 3:30 p.m.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

California Speedway Facts

TODAY

* 2:30 p.m. Winston Cup pole qualifying--positions 1-25 (1 lap)

* 3:45 p.m. Busch Series Grand National qualifying--all positions (2 laps)

SATURDAY

* 10 a.m. Winston Cup qualifying--positions 26-36 (1 lap)

* 11 a.m. Auto Club 300 Busch Series Race (150 laps)

* 3:30 p.m. Winston West 200 race (100 laps)

SUNDAY

* 10:30 a.m. Winston Cup driver introductions

* 11 a.m. California 500 presented by NAPA (250 laps)

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