FONTANA — Qualifying on the pole is no guarantee of success in a Winston Cup race, but having a car in front of the pack for the start of a race such as Sunday's NAPA Auto Parts 500 pleases sponsors and crew chiefs.
Qualifying for both the Winston Cup and the Auto Club 300 Busch Grand National series is scheduled today at California Speedway.
NASCAR has applied added pressure to drivers and crews this year by eliminating second-day qualifying. In previous years, if a driver faltered on the first day, he had an opportunity to make it up the next day. This year it's one attempt only and if you falter, you'd better have a provisional in your pocket.
Provisionals are starting positions awarded cars that fail to qualify among the fastest 36. They are awarded according to car owner standings at the time, or to former Cup champions.
In four previous 500s here, no driver has won from the pole. Still, except for last year's race, it has been important to start close to the front. Jeff Gordon won the inaugural race in 1997 from the third position, as did Mark Martin in 1998. Gordon won again in 1999 as fifth fastest, then Jeremy Mayfield made his remarkable charge through the 43-car field last year from No. 24 on the starting grid.
Gordon, a California native from Vallejo, has thrived on racing in his home state. He has won five of the last eight Winston Cup races in California, three in a row at Sears Point as well as the two at Fontana.
"I've always liked racing at places like California and Michigan, where the track is wide and gives you plenty of room to pass and race side by side," said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet.
"Last year, the groove in the turns allowed for racing much higher than ever before and it was a very tricky race track. When the track is hot and slick, you have to keep searching for a groove that works best for your car."
Track position, says Gordon, will play an important part in Sunday's race, which in turn puts a premium on qualifying.
"We had to start 26th last year and we just never got the track position we wanted," he said of his 11th-place finish. "My car was so much more difficult to drive in traffic, compared to not being in traffic. I'd rather do what we did in '97 and '99. Keep the car out front in clean air, lead the most laps, and win."
If there is a favorite, both in today's qualifying and Sunday's race, it is Dale Jarrett, the 1999 champion who has taken a 145-point lead over Gordon after nine of the season's 36 races. Jarrett, with three victories, is the only driver with more than one.
And if there is a dark horse, it is Johnny Benson, whose consistent driving in the Valvoline Pontiac has him only five points out of second place, even though he has not won. Benson has six top-10 finishes.
Benson, although winless in Winston Cup racing, has won at California Speedway, finishing first in the Winston West race last year.
Shawna Robinson, 36, is trying to become the first woman Winston Cup qualifier in almost 12 years. It will be her first attempt and because car owner Michael Kranefuss has no points, she must make the field without benefit of a provisional.
In the Busch series, a breakthrough of a different nature occurred last week at Talladega, Ala., when Tim Shutt was crew chief for the winning car, owned by Joe Gibbs and driven by Mike McLaughlin. Shutt, 32, became the first African American crew chief to win in a Winston Cup, Busch or Craftsman Truck race.
Shutt, whose background includes 10 years of kart racing and working on sprint, midget and dirt champ cars, was named crew chief by Gibbs on the unsponsored No. 20 Pontiac last December.
"Tim has focused all his efforts on racing since he was a youngster," said Gibbs, who also has drivers Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart in Winston Cup. "He is hard-working and an intelligent racer who earned this opportunity."
Rookie Mark Reed of Bakersfield, Winston West points leader after four races, won the pole Thursday for Saturday's Pontiac Wide Track Grand Prix 200 with a record run of 181.593 mph. Fittingly, Reed was driving a Pontiac Grand Prix. The Bakersfield youngster, who won in Las Vegas, bettered the year-old mark of 180.853 set in 1999 by Austin Cameron of El Cajon. Cameron qualified sixth this year. Another rookie, 19-year-old Jon Wood of Stuart, Va., grandson of Glen Wood of Wood Brothers fame, was a surprising second at 180.307. The $220,000 Winston West race is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Saturday.