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SPORTS * WEEKEND | ORANGE COUNTY MOTOR RACING

Learning Curve

Teams of Pruett, Gordon Seek Winning Combination

May 05, 2000|MARTIN HENDERSON

Scott Pruett and Robby Gordon took something valuable from their performances Sunday at the NAPA Auto Parts 500 in Fontana.

Information.

"We're learning so much so fast," said Pruett, driver for PPI Motorsports of Rancho Santa Margarita. "We [started] the year six- or seventh-tenths [of a second] off the leader's pace, and [now] we're three- or four-tenths off the leader's pace. We just have to keep doing that."

Pruett, whose primary focus has been qualifying for races, started on the third row but dropped from sixth to 31st within 11 laps. He said a loose wheel dropped his Ford back "a couple of laps" early. But there was still something gained.

"Finishing the race was real important to us, to learn more about going racing," Pruett said. "When [the car is] loose, what are our tools to fix it? When it's pushing, what are our tools to fix it? When it's loose [into the corner], when it's loose out [of the corner], changing race lines, working the track to get as much grip as you can--it's pretty valuable. That kind of information is going to come in handy in every race."

Pruett finished 34th, three laps behind winner Jeremy Mayfield. Gordon spun into the wall on Lap 249.

"In my experience, everything it takes to win a 500-mile race, we did for the first half of the race," said Richard Buck, Gordon's team manager. "You have to get the car as close as you can to perfect on the next-to-last pit stop. . . . We stepped one inch to the right when we should have stepped one inch to the left.

"Realistically, you could say we had a top-10 car, but circumstances permitting, we had a top-five car."

Gordon, who tested well at Fontana but performed poorly in qualifying and started 29th, moved through the pack and ran as high as 17th.

A jack problem on the third pit stop dropped him from 22nd to 32nd. He was 28th when he hit the wall.

"I look at the scoreboard and see [Jerry Nadeau] at [position] 13," Gordon said. "We ran with him all day, and he's not even a lap down. We have to learn how to not lose a lap."

It was Buck's second race as team manager for Gordon, and PPI decided to make a change this week. Team owner Cal Wells III released crew chief Doug Richert and replaced him with PPI's Busch Series director, Joe Garone. Wells also gave additional responsibility to Roy McCauley, Pruett's race engineer, and Busch crew chief Pat Smith.

The Winston Cup teams compete Saturday in the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond, Va.

WINSTON WEST

One stock car driver who didn't race last weekend in Fontana was Butch Gilliland, who competed last year for Anaheim's Jenn West Motorsports. Jenn West is being dissolved through bankruptcy.

"We will be racing, but not right now," said Gilliland, 43, who is putting together a sponsorship package that would allow him to race three Winston Cup events and the remainder of the Winston West season. It would include at least five Winston Cup races in 2001 and a full Winston West season.

"I'm real disappointed, but until we get this Jenn West thing cleaned up, I'm not going to race," Gilliland said. "I'm going to focus on getting [it] resolved so we can focus on racing and give 110%."

His hopes are to have it done before June so he can compete in the Winston Cup race at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma.

* Craig Raudman, driver for Rancho Santa Margarita team owner Dave Reed, was released from Loma Linda University Medical Center Tuesday after an accident in Saturday's Winston West race at California Speedway.

Raudman, who started 16th, was in fourth place when he was part of a four-car crash four laps from the end of the 200-mile event. He was knocked briefly unconscious from the impact, suffered broken bones in his left foot, bruising to his body and a black eye. Tests showed a mild concussion, but no serious head injuries.

Because Raudman's foot will be in a cast six to eight weeks, Reed canceled plans to compete in the Winston West event May 21 at Laguna Seca. The next event for Reed's team is June 24 at Sears Point in the Southwest Series, which is a support race for a Winston Cup event.

* Bill Sedgwick, who started 18th for Orange County team owner Tim Buckley, finished 15th in the Winston West event Saturday.

CHAMP CARS

Cristiano da Matta matched his best CART finish over the weekend in his native Brazil with a fourth place for PPI Motorsports of Rancho Santa Margarita. The local race team is still trying to reach the winner's podium for the first time, and gets another chance May 11 at the Firestone Firehawk 500 in Motegi, Japan.

"It's an honor to be the highest finishing Brazilian in my home country," said da Matta, one of nine natives in the race. "It means a lot to me and my family, and that makes this finish something extra special."

Da Matta's teammate, rookie Oriol Servia, who was coming off an outstanding race in Long Beach to finish sixth, spun into a wall before taking the green flag and finished last.

*

If you have an item or idea for the motor racing report, you can fax us at (714)966-5663 or e-mail us at martin.henderson@latimes.com

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