Blaney Earns 15Th Starting Spot

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FONTANA, Calif. – There were more than a few happy NASCAR Winston Cup Series teams and drivers on Friday afternoon at the California Speedway.

Unlike last weekend in qualifying at Talladega, where the drivers openly complained about how little their driving skills mattered because of the infamous draft, that was far from the case on Friday at the two-mile California track.

And the drivers loved that fact, in particular, defending series champion Bobby Labonte. Labonte won the pole for Sunday’s NAPA Auto Parts 500 with his lap at 182.636 mph to edge second-place qualifier Todd Bodine and his lap at 182.566 mph.

Rounding out the Top 5 were Jeremy Mayfield, Tony Stewart and Dale Jarrett.

Dave Blaney and the Amoco Ultimate team qualified 15th for the event.

“It’s a brand-new race car and the guys prepared it really well,” Labonte said. “With a new car, sometimes you hit it just right and sometimes you’re way off. The guys did really well with this car. We hadn’t won a pole yet this year, so this is a really good run for us whether we won the pole or not.

“The decisions Jimmy Makar and I made after practice worked out. Last year we qualified 36th here, so this is a great improvement.”

Rounding out the Top 10 are Ricky Rudd, Steve Park, Johnny Benson, Jimmy Spencer and Mark Martin.

According to Mayfield, the defending NAPA 500 winner, the California track is one that puts a premium on handling well, as opposed to Talladega where about the only talent it took to do well was staying in the draft.

“This is a speed track because you go over 180 mph here,” said Mayfield, who qualified third. “To get that speed you need to be handling well, so we’re going to have a pretty good race. At California, you have to run hard and think your way around the track.”

Trying to get a rough season off the ground and running is Labonte, who heads into Sunday’s race 14th in the points standings. Labonte knows his way around the Fontana track with three straight top-10 finishes, including last year’s runner-up finish to Mayfield.

“I won’t say we’ve turned the corner, but I see signs we’re starting to find our rhythm,” Labonte said. “We’ve had our share of misfortune so far this season, but the season is still far from over and we still have a chance to redeem ourselves. We actually had a pretty good run here last year even though I would have liked to gotten around Jeremy for the win.

“I really like this track. The groove has gotten wider the past couple of years so you can try those different lines. It’s kind of like Michigan, and that’s my favorite track.”

It was the first pole of the season for both Labonte and Pontiac.

There were two big stories heading into Friday’s qualifying with Shawna Robinson, and Jeff Green taking a rare venture into the Winston Cup garage from the Busch Series side of the fence.

Robinson was attempting to become the first female driver in more than 10 years to compete in a Winston Cup race, while Green is racing a limited Cup schedule this season for Richard Childress Racing.

Robinson’s day was rocky from the start, posting the slowest time of all 46 cars in practice, and because it didn’t get any better by breaking a rear end on her timed lap, so she failed to qualify for Sunday’s race.

Green had a much better outing as he qualified 28th to earn his way into the field.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Robert Pressley were the only two drivers to make contact with the wall in the practice session held just before qualifying, with both of them having to go to a backup.

However, the spinning would not be limited to just practice as Stacy Compton, the pole winner last weekend at Talladega, would spin his car coming to take the green flag on his qualifying lap. Compton won’t have quite the same view at the start this weekend, as he needed to take a provisional to make the race.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2001

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