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SPORTS * WEEKEND | ORANGE COUNTY MOTOR RACING

Strong Finish Gives Pruett His Validation

August 11, 2000|MARTIN HENDERSON

There's nothing like a top-10 finish to ease one's feeling of inadequacy. Scott Pruett, who in a moment of frustration second-guessed his decision to leave the CART series for NASCAR, is feeling better these days.

His 10th-place finish at the Brickyard 400 on Sunday for Orange County owner Cal Wells III's Winston Cup program was the best finish of his rookie season.

This Sunday's race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., a road course event, presents him with one of his two best chances of victory. The other, the road course event at Sears Point, Calif., was a race Pruett led before he crashed after being bumped by Jeff Gordon.

Now Pruett feels like he has some momentum.

"I've seen that in my 30 years of racing, you try and try and can't get a result," said Pruett, 40. "Then, boom, you hit on one, and then two, three, four more races you're just rocking. From [Indianapolis] we go to Watkins Glen and then to Michigan. From a team standpoint, we should look good for the next few races and the rest of the season.

"Race to race, we continue to adjust our goals."

The next five races could be telling. Pruett is an accomplished road racer, and he has been good at Michigan, where his team had its previous best finish, 19th, earlier this season.

But the following three races are at Bristol (Tenn.), Darlington (S.C.) and Richmond (Va.). The first time through those tracks, Pruett failed to qualify at Bristol and Darlington, and his 27th-place finish in Richmond on May 6 was his lowest point this season.

He questioned his decision to leave Wells' Champ car team, where he drove so well that he won the pole position at California Speedway in the season finale. With a fully developed Toyota engine, Cristiano da Matta is driving the car Pruett drove last year and is fourth in the standings.

"After Richmond, it was like, 'Geez,' " Pruett said. "It wasn't long-lasting, but at the time, it was like, 'What have I done, what am I doing, and why did I do it?'

"I was working harder than I ever remember, I was running like crap, and when I got out of the car, I was worn out physically and mentally--and I had nothing to show for it except running at the back of the pack."

Those moments are behind him.

"Everything started coming together for the Tide team at Michigan," Pruett said. "It may not have seemed that way outwardly, but from a team standpoint and perspective, I felt and the team felt we were headed in the right direction."

PPI has since hired a new crew chief, Brad Parrott, who has solidified that direction.

"From what I've heard, it takes the average team about five years to get its first victory," Pruett said. "Cal and Tide started their team in October, starting completely from scratch, with a driver who's never raced Winston Cup and hasn't been to 85% of the tracks. Take all those things into account, I think what we're doing is pretty awesome and on the mark, and we're going to have some great success as we move forward into the second half of the season."

Still, Wells is demanding.

"From my perspective, Scott should have been fifth at Indy," Wells said. "He had the drive of the weekend. We cost ourselves 15 spots over three pit stops.

"We did not have a race-winning package, but a damn good package. I'm not disappointed, I just want to keep doing it. I don't want to be a flash in the pan. That's my biggest worry."

Pruett feels the same way after leaving the relative comfort of his open wheel Champ car.

"I miss the pure challenge of driving one of those cars at times," Pruett said, "but I have my hands full here."

Coupled with da Matta's victory a week earlier in Chicago, the first for Wells' team, Wells said he couldn't remember the last time he had such a good two-week period. Still, he's looking for more.

"I've got to keep digging, I can't lift," Wells said. "I have to remain committed to winning."

WATER SPORTS

Indy Racing Northern Light Series team owner Dick Simon nearly had a serious accident two weekends ago when he was racing his 38-foot Top Gun Cigarette boat in Benicia, Calif. Simon was at the wheel when he got pinched between a boat and a buoy at 85 mph. The Cigarette tipped completely on its side, ejecting throttle man Sean Stinson of Newport Beach. Simon was flung from one side of the cockpit to the other, and his head even hit the water before the boat righted itself.

Stinson suffered a sprained ankle, bruises and scratches.

* Simon, who owns Dick Simon Marine in Dana Point, is sponsor of the 15th Catalina Ski Race at 8 a.m. Sunday. About 120 boats will pull about 130 skiers from Long Beach Harbor to Avalon Harbor and back. The race ends past the Queen Mary in front of the Westcoast Long Beach Hotel. The race record is 52 minutes 3 seconds, set by Carlo Cassa in 1996. The winner will average about 70 mph.

Simon is supplying four boats for the race. Simon's racing sponsor, The Mexmil Company of Santa Ana, is sponsoring today's activities at the Marine Stadium for handicapped children.

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