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Drivers Can Always Bank on Fontana


Was Sunday's 500-mile caution-free Winston Cup race at Talladega, the fastest race course in the world, the result of 43 talented stock car drivers watching out for one another, or just plain old blind luck?

Whatever it was, it was nerve-racking and exhausting, nearly three hours at 200 mph with cars inches from one another, two-, three- and four-deep at times.

"That's not racing," said Dale Jarrett, the Winston Cup points leader and a driver not given to criticism.

This week, the Winston Cup troupe will get a reprieve in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway in Fontana.

"It won't be anything like what we just went through in Talladega," said Mark Martin, winner of the 1998 Fontana race. "This will be real racing as opposed to just riding around, waiting for an accident."

California Speedway, a two-mile D-shaped paved oval, is considered one of the friendliest tracks on the NASCAR circuit. With its 75-foot racing surface, 14-degree banking in the turns and a 3,100-foot front straightaway with 11-degree banking, it offers a number of opportunities to pass.

In last year's race, for instance, there were 20 lead changes among 15 drivers before Jeremy Mayfield broke free from the pack to win in one of Roger Penske's Fords.

A first-time winner would not be surprising. Parity has come to Winston Cup. In nine races, only one driver, Jarrett, has won more than once. Three, Michael Waltrip in the Daytona 500, Elliott Sadler on the high banks at Bristol, Tenn., and rookie Kevin Harvick at Atlanta Motor Speedway, were first-time winners.

Jarrett, with three victories, has 1,345 points to 1,200 for Jeff Gordon, a two-time Fontana winner, after nine races. Pressing Gordon are Johnny Benson, still looking for his first Winston Cup win, with 1,195; Bobby Hamilton, last week's Talladega winner, with 1,175, and Sterling Marlin, 1,153.

There is more that just a nice race track that appeals to the Winston Cup teams.

"California is a great place to go," Sadler said. "I like shopping there. I like that mall about two miles from the race track. I could get lost in there for about two days. I'm not going to tell you everything we're going to do, but we're going to have a good time, and we'll be ready by the time Sunday comes around."

Sadler, who drives the No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers team, will appear today at the GameWorks location at the Ontario Mills Mall from 6 to 7:45 p.m.

One thing is certain--Sunday's sellout crowd will be the largest since California Speedway opened in 1997. Since last fall's CART race, 5,875 new grandstand seats have been built near Turn 4, bringing the seat total to 92,109. An additional 15,000 fans are expected in the infield, where nearly 2,000 RV spaces have been sold out for months.

The record race crowd for California is 139,919 for the inaugural California 500 at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1970.

Three NASCAR races are scheduled for the three-day weekend. Practice and qualifying are Friday, then on Saturday there will be a Pontiac Wide Track Grand Prix 200 for Winston West cars and an Auto Club 300 for Busch Grand National cars. The main event, the NAPA Auto Parts 500, will start at 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Tickets are available for Friday and Saturday, but Sunday's race is sold out.

Total purse money for the three events will be nearly $5.4 million. The Winston Cup purse is $3,955,703, and the Busch series race offers $1,205,059. The Winston West purse is $213,428.

Sunday's race winner will also receive the Les Richter Trophy, named after the former Los Angeles Ram football great, NASCAR executive and current vice president of International Speedway Corp., owner of California Speedway.

Winston West cars qualify today in a not-open-to-the-public event, with both Busch and Winston Cup cars qualifying Friday.

Happy Hour for the Cup cars--their final tuneup for Sunday's 500 miles--will be at 8:15 a.m. Saturday.

Even fans will get into the spotlight. A yearlong search for the "most colorful fan of NASCAR" will stop at California Speedway on Sunday morning. The M&M fan patrol will scan the aisles of souvenir alley between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. looking for the flashiest dressed fans. A team of photographers will choose 12 colorful fans from the crowd and their likenesses will be posted on for a week after the race. The one with the most votes qualifies for a trip for four to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2002, where the national winner will be decided.

Infield fans and those who choose to hang around after Saturday's races will be treated to a concert by rockers Blue Oyster Cult. Music will start at 5:30 p.m., followed by fireworks.

Mayfield will be honored Friday in a Walk-of-Fame presentation at 9:30 a.m.

Prerace ceremonies on Sunday will begin with National Hot Rod Assn. founder Wally Parks being presented with the Glick Award for "outstanding contributions to California racing" at 10:45 a.m., followed by a Jim Wallace skydive.

Rock 'n' roll hall of famer Stephen Stills will sing the national anthem and the 500 cars will roll off pit lane at 11:30 a.m.

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