Rookies Rock Thunder Valley

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Bristol Motor Speedway can be a loud and scary place, not only for fans visiting the .533-mile short track for the first time, but also for the rookie drivers who have never whipped a Winston Cup stock car around the high-banked turns of the .533-mile oval for 500 miles.

As the Winston Cup Series gets set to race its first of two events of the season at Bristol in 2001, six first-year drivers – Kevin Harvick, Casey Atwood, Kurt Busch, Ron Hornaday, Andy Houston and Jason Leffler – are contemplating what their first 500-mile foray at the “world’s fastest half-mile” will be like. Five of those six will find out Sunday in the Food City 500 (1 p.m., ET).

Leffler, in his first year with the Chip Ganassi team, failed to make the field and will have to try Bristol again when the circuit returns in August.

Harvick is one rookie who wasn’t dreading coming to Bristol, and he proved that on Friday by winning the Busch Series pole and qualifying third for the Cup race.

“I’m looking forward to this Sunday especially,” said Harvick, driver of Richard Childress’ No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet. “We have a win here in Busch, and we always ran well here in the truck series.”

Accidents are a nightmare for rookies, and they’re plentiful at Bristol. The trick is avoiding them.

“The best way to stay out of trouble at Bristol is to stay up front,” Harvick said.

The last rookie to finish in the Top 5 of any Cup race at Bristol was Dick Trickle, who finished fifth in the spring race in 1989. Ron Bouchard, who won rookie-of-the-year honors in 1981, finished fifth in the fall race that season.

While Harvick won last fall’s Busch race at the Tennessee short track, Atwood – who will start 16th Sunday - was able to finish ninth in the same race. Like Harvick, Atwood will be trying to parlay that strong outing into a good Winston Cup finish Sunday.

“The Busch Series really prepared me a lot for what I’m going through now,” Atwood said. “The biggest difference I’ve seen is not in the cars, it’s just the length of the races. We go twice as long as I’m used to. In the Busch Series, the races aren’t really long enough to wear your car down and cause a lot of problems, so you're really flat out the entire time.

“In Winston Cup, the races are so long and you make so many pit stops, you’ve got so many opportunities to make your car better on pit stops. You have a lot more time to do what you want to do in the race and that’s the hardest part I’ve had to learn.”

Busch, who has one top-10 finish and sits in 29th position in the points after five races, jokes he doesn’t have a clue of what to expect from his first Winston Cup race at Bristol. That’s why he and his No. 97 Roush Racing Taurus team tested there recently.

“Both the car and I needed some breaking at Bristol,” said Busch, who qualified 38th on Friday. “It took a few laps to get acclimated to the high banks, but after a while I felt pretty comfortable. The crew and I left feeling good about our test and we’re ready to take on Bristol Sunday.”

Whether or not Busch or any of the other rookies will leave Bristol Motor Speedway with a good feeling late Sunday afternoon remains to be seen.

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