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Cup Points Are at a Premium in Fontana

September 05, 2004|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

The next to last qualifying race of NASCAR's multi-million dollar Nextel Cup championship series will be held this afternoon before more than 100,000 stock car racing fans at California Speedway in Fontana.

The Pop Secret 500 will start at 4:30 p.m., when it should be hot enough to pop corn on the track, and will finish in semi-darkness, making it the first superspeedway race to "Finish Under the Lights" on the West Coast. The two-mile track will be illuminated by a three million watt per hour lighting system on 127 light standards.

Following next week's race in Richmond, Va., the top 10 drivers after 26 heat races will participate in the so-called chase for the championship in the final 10 races of the Nextel Cup schedule.

The point system is so rigged that even if a driver outside the top 10 won all remaining 10 races, he could not win the Cup crown and its more than $5-million bonus. As a sop to the non-qualifiers, 11th place will receive $970,000 and a seat at the New York awards banquet.

This puts a premium on getting in the final 10, and that is precisely what Brian France, NASCAR chairman of the board, had in mind when he announced the new points system shortly before the start of this season.

"We wanted to add interest toward the end of the season, the months where we are fighting football and the baseball playoffs, and I think you're clearly seeing the benefits as we hoped would happen," France said. "There are drivers in the hunt that wouldn't have been there in other years, and there is a lot of interest in who is going to make the top 10."

Three drivers, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all in Chevrolets, have clinched their spot in the chase no matter what happens today or in Richmond. Four others, Tony Stewart, defending series champion Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Elliott Sadler are close to being in, barring a disaster.

Then comes the fun.

Only 40 points separate Kevin Harvick in eighth place and the deadlock of Dale Jarrett and Jamie McMurray in 14th place. Between are Bobby Labonte, Ryan Newman, rookie Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin and Jeremy Mayfield.

Watching where they are on the two-mile, D-shaped California Speedway toward the end of the 500 miles tonight could be more interesting than who is going to take the checkered flag.

Shifts in the standings can occur in a hurry. As much as 156 points could change within today's race, based on the difference between a first-place finish leading the most laps (190 points) as opposed to a 43rd-place finish (34 points).

Over the last four races, Martin moved from 123 points outside the top 10 to only 40 points from eighth.

"We are going to pull together another couple of strong runs and get ourselves inside that top 10 after Richmond," said Martin, the 45-year-old Roush driver.

Brian Vickers, a rookie from Thomasville, N.C., will start on the pole after his qualifying lap of 187.417 mph Friday in one of Ray Hendricks' Chevrolets was the fastest of 48 entrants. Vickers, last year's Busch series champion as a rookie, is a teammate of Gordon and Johnson, who are first and second in Nextel standings after 24 races.

However, winning the pole has never been significant on California Speedway's sweeping track with its minimal 14 degree banking in the turns. In eight races, no driver has ever won from the pole. Four have won from far back: Mayfield from 24th in 2000, Rusty Wallace from 19th in 2001, Busch from 16th last year and Gordon from 16th last May.

"One of the good things about racing here," said Kenseth, who will start 30th, "is that it's a great race track and you can run side by side. If you've got a faster car, it's no problem to pass."

The scenario is somewhat similar to the Twin 125s that determine qualifying positions for the Daytona 500. Winning is good for the ego, but the racing is more intense back around 14th or 15th position, where a finishing position might determine if a driver races in the 500 or loads up and heads home.

Today the excitement will be about where the would-be top 10 drivers are running, and where they finish.

Kenseth, whose record in winning the 2003 title with only a single racing win is said to have triggered the NASCAR points system change, is ambivalent about the chase.

"I don't know if it's bringing more people in or if it's not bringing more people in, but, obviously, you're forced to focus on the 10 spots ... but people always watch the championship battle," the Ford driver said.

Two of Kenseth's Roush Racing teammates, Busch and Martin, are on the bubble, but he said he did not believe there could be any team tactics, such as blocking or deliberate wrecking to help a teammate.

"No, this isn't 'Days of Thunder,' he said. "That's not going to happen. First of all, everybody has way too much respect for each other in the garage area. We have to live with these people basically every week of the year for 40 weeks, plus it's dangerous.

"There may be teammates who can do little things to help each other, maybe let them have a position or get a lap back, although I don't see that happening either."

Two variables never encountered at Fontana before are the transition from bright daylight to darkness, and the blinding effect on driving down the back straightaway looking directly into the setting sun.

"I personally enjoy nighttime racing, so we'll see what it's like starting in the afternoon and going into the evening," said Newman, starting in the 14th spot. "Usually it gets faster and more exciting at the same time. You see sparks when people's eyes light up."

On the sunshine problem, Mayfield said he noticed Friday when he went out to qualify that "the backstretch was already starting to be a little delusional. Everything started to blend in with the sun. We're used to that stuff, sunshine in our eyes and the windshield getting all blasted up. We'll adapt to it somehow."

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