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Sadler is Lights-Out

Helped by last of 11 caution periods, he wins California Speedway's first Nextel Cup nighttime finish to clinch spot in NASCAR's new 10-driver, 10-race playoff.

September 06, 2004|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

Any doubts that California Speedway's inaugural "Finish Under the Lights" Nextel Cup race might not last until darkness Sunday ended when a track-record 11 caution periods for accidents, oil spills and debris caused the Pop Secret 500 to run for nearly four hours.

When Elliott Sadler's No. 38 Ford took the checkered flag after a stirring late-race duel with rookie Kasey Kahne and old-timer Mark Martin, what was left of the 43-car field had been spinning around the two-mile D-shaped oval for 3 hours 53 minutes. That was nearly 30 minutes longer than the previous race average.

It didn't matter to the winner, nor did it to Kahne and Martin, both of whom needed strong finishes to stay in the hunt for the 10-driver championship race over the season's final 10 races for the $5-million champion's bonus.

Sadler, by winning his second race of the season, clinched a spot in the playoff series, while Kahne and Martin's 2-3 finish moved them into the top 10 with only one pre-playoff race remaining, Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

The crowd of more than 100,000 was the first non-sellout for a Cup race in California Speedway's eight-year history.

"No doubt, the cautions at the finish helped us," said Sadler. "I have the best crew chief [Todd Parrott] in the business and he made a great air-pressure adjustment at the end of the race and I didn't agree with it. I told him, 'I don't think we should do that,' and he did it. That's the reason why he's the winningest active crew chief in the garage. He got the car perfect for those last 12 laps."

Martin, 45 and four times a runner-up in Cup championship standings, appeared on his way to winning for the second time at California Speedway before two late caution flags took the steam out of his Jack Roush-prepared Ford. All race long, Martin had been slow getting off after restarts, but on long runs he was the fastest.

"I hate it that all those cautions came out there at the end," said Martin, who won the 1998 race, "but I'm thrilled to death to run third today and be a contender. If the cautions fell differently, we had something for 'em, but we knew if it went on the short runs that Kasey -- I really thought he would win the race -- but Elliott Sadler sat up in the seat and got enough short runs there to pull it off."

Martin led 65 laps, the most of any driver, while Sadler led 59, including the last 27. Rookie Brian Vickers, the pole-sitter, led 44 and Kahne 39. Although there were a record 13 leaders, eight of them led only one lap during pit stop periods.

"I was surprised that the 38 was as good as it was," Kahne said after finishing second for the fifth time this year without a win. "I was thinking the 6 [Martin] was going to be really strong, but Elliott was pretty darn good at the end. It made for an interesting finish, a lot of fun. I wish there was one or two more laps."

The race, which started in blistering 99-degree heat with the temperature on the track hitting 132, was one of the most exciting in the eight times NASCAR had presented Cup racing at Fontana. Some of the drivers felt differently, however, as the searing heat kept the racing surface slick and gusty winds circulated pieces of paper onto the track.

"It was definitely hairy running three-wide there at the start of the race because the track was so greasy," said fifth-place finisher Ryan Newman. "There at the end it was hairy again and the track was stickier. Guys were running a lot harder and there was a little less give and take."

Jeff Gordon, a three-time California Speedway winner who was trying to make a sweep of Golden State races this year after winning in May at Fontana and later at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, dropped out with a blown engine that he attributed to flying debris.

"This place is really bad about trash," Gordon said. "I blew a motor because we got some trash on the front grille. I don't know, it's coming from the grandstands. It's real gusty here, so we've got to find out about that."

Dale Jarrett, who finished eighth, said, "We'd prefer that [spectators] would throw their wrappers in a trash bag next time. I got a piece on my grille and it made the car run a little hot one time."

The lighting system, with its 3 million watts of power per hour, received rave reviews from the drivers, but the setting sun gave them fits during twilight time.

"The lights were great, but before they came on, it was really difficult to see," said Jimmie Johnson, who finished 14th but moved into the Nextel Cup lead when his teammate, Gordon, finished 37th. "You could see the corner, but you couldn't tell where the cars were around you because of the glare. So it was pretty dangerous and pretty tough to see where you were going at that point."

"The lighting system was perfect," said Sadler, a comment expected from a 29-year-old who had just won $279,398.

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