Sears Point Notebook: Friday

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SONOMA, Calif. – Despite the presence of a few “road-course” specialists, Jeff Gordon feels very confident about his team’s chances of winning its fourth straight NASCAR Winston Cup Series event at Sears Point Raceway this weekend.

After winning the pole Friday for the Dodge/Save Mart 350 with a Winston Cup track record speed of 93.699 mph, he should be.

But if guys like Ron Fellows, Boris Said, Brian Simo, Dorsey Schroeder and Robby Gordon were driving the same type of equipment Gordon himself is… well, that might just be a different story.

Gordon said road-course experience is definitely a factor in Winston Cup races at Sears Point, but it takes a lot more than just driver know-how to take the checkered flag at the 1.949-mile, 10-turn track.

“I’d really be interested to see if guys like that were better in my car, too,” said Gordon, who had three victories and two poles in his eight previous races at Sears Point. “Those guys that do this week-in and week-out definitely have a feel for turning right better than we do, and just having that road-course experience makes them a big threat. But the only thing I really look at is they don’t have a lot of experience in a big heavy car like we do.

“If guys like that had the top-notch equipment like I do and a few other teams around the garage area, we’d probably all be in trouble. There’s no doubt about that. But those guys rarely get that opportunity. I remember a couple of years ago when Tommy Kendall was out here substituting for Kyle Petty, and he was among the top teams. He got together with somebody, and probably should have won the race. You put one of those guys with a top team and you’d better watch out. They’d be a serious threat.

“But that’s why I’m very excited about our team when we come to a road course. We feel like we bring the complete package to a road course – driver, crew chief, car and team – to be able to win races. That’s why we’ve won three in a row, and that’s why we believe we can keep it going.”

Said is driving the No. 77 Jasper Engines Ford normally driven by Robert Pressley, who sits 27th in the Winston Cup points standings. He’ll also drive that car in the other road-course event at Watkins Glen in August.

Robby Gordon will drive the No. 7 NationsRent Ford normally piloted by Mike Wallace, while Simo is stepping in for Hut Stricklin in the No. 90 Hills Bros. Coffee Ford.

Jeff Gordon said the best opportunity for one of the regular road racers to make a run at winning Sunday will come from Fellows, who is driving a Chevrolet fielded by NEMCO Motorsports, owned by Winston Cup driver Joe Nemechek.

“Ron Fellows to me has seen the best results here lately,” Gordon said. “At the same time, he’s had some pretty good cars in races here. You might be able to throw in a driver and pick up a little bit of speed and maybe a few positions, but I don’t know if it’s going to win you the race. Ron might have the ability and the equipment to do that.”

Rusty Wallace, a two-time winner at Sears Point, had a different perspective on the subject.

“What do you mean? I go to every track thinking I’m the man (laughing),” Wallace said. “There’s no dude that can outrun me. Maybe Jeff (Gordon), but that’s about it (laughing). No, if you think you can get beat by anybody you might as well hang it up and become a plumber, you know (laughing). And I need a plumber at my house, by the way.”

A good point: To illustrate Gordon’s point, Said, a full-time competitor in the SCCA Trans-Am Series, has attempted to qualify for five Winston Cup road-course races in the past, including two at Sears Point. In 1999, while driving for Jimmy Spencer, Said posted the fastest times in practice but encountered engine problems during both of his qualifying runs and thus failed to make the field.

He started the 2000 race from the 23rd position but experienced mechanical problems on Lap 26 of the 112-lap event and finished 42nd. Simo will be driving a car for a team that had problems qualifying for races earlier in the year. He’ll also be driving the same car he drove for the same team at Sears Point last year, when he qualified 34th and finished 36th.

Said had problems staying on the course during qualifying and was forced to take a provisional. Simo will start from the 15th position, Fellows from the 13th position, Robby Gordon from the seventh position and Schroeder from the 36th position.

No Surprise: Jeff Gordon was tops in the morning practice session at 93.936 mph. He was followed by Rusty Wallace (93.426), Fellows (93.408), Tony Stewart (93.402) and Robby Gordon (93.246).

Critical Race: Although it’s only the 16th of 36 points races this season, Sunday’s Save Mart 350 might just be a crucial one for Dale Jarrett. The driver of the No. 88 UPS Ford comes into Sunday’s race a mere 36 points behind Gordon in the Winston Cup standings, but whereas Gordon has excelled at Sears Point in the past, Jarrett has had limited success.

Jarrett’s best finish was fourth in 1997. He has three top-10 finishes in 12 starts on the road course. Plus, Jarrett still hasn’t completely recovered from the rib injury he suffered at Charlotte last month.

“I’m still not what you’d call 100 percent healthy, but Pocono (last week) was pretty encouraging because it was the first week where I didn’t have a lot of soreness after the race. Sears Point, being a road course, puts some different stresses and strains on you physically, but I don’t anticipate too much trouble this weekend.

“It’s very fair to say Jeff Gordon is the target this weekend. He’s kind of been the king of the road courses for a while and I know he comes in here with a lot of confidence with the way that they’ve run and with his past success here. And with us not having won a road-course race before, I would kind of be looking at it the same way if I was in his shoes. I have to just go and do my job and do it the best that I can. Hopefully, it’ll be in the Top 5.”

Jarrett qualified 35th Friday with a lap of 90.954 mph, leaving him and his team a lot of work to do Sunday.

Critical Point: Andy Houston’s driving career has certainly seen better days. Heading into the weekend, the rookie driver of the No. 96 McDonald’s Ford had failed to qualify for five of the 15 races this season, including the past two events at Michigan and Pocono, and was 42nd in the Winston Cup points standings.

In order to prepare both he and PPI Motorsports teammate Ricky Craven for the Sears Point road course, team owner Cal Wells sent them both back to school – the Jim Russell Racing School – for the finer points on racing at the 1.949-mile venue.

“From my standpoint, Sears Point is totally different than any other road course I’ve been on,” Houston said. “It’s got a lot of elevation changes. The whole front part of the track is uphill and the back part is downhill. I enjoyed the school, and it was a lot of fun. We know we’ve got to get this thing turned around soon. It’s no fun sitting on the sidelines.”

Houston won’t have much fun again this weekend as he failed to qualify for the third race in a row. He was 39th fastest out of 47 cars.

Great Day: In addition to Gordon winning the pole at Sears Point, his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jerry Nadeau and Terry Labonte, had solid qualifying efforts. Nadeau qualified sixth and Labonte eighth.

That goes along with the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series pole that Jack Sprague won at Memphis Motorsports Park Friday. Team owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, qualified 12th at Memphis.

“That’s great for everyone involved, and it’s so good to see those guys qualify like that,” Gordon said. “We won the race at Michigan a couple of weeks ago, but those two guys didn’t do so well, so Rick (Hendrick) couldn’t really celebrate at all. He’s not just worried about our team, it’s a whole collaborative effort.

“And I know he’s really proud of Jack winning the pole, too.”

Life of Luxury: Robert Yates didn’t exactly get to celebrate Ricky Rudd’s victory in last Sunday’s Pocono 500 in high fashion. Yates didn’t fly home to North Carolina after the race – he drove his motorcoach from Lond Pond, Pa., to Mooresville, N.C., and arrived in the wee hours of the morning.

“Carolyn (his wife) got sick at Pocono and just wanted to lay down after the race,” Yates said. “I drove all night. It was kind of like a warm-up for our retirement.”

It wasn’t Yates’ first time behind the wheel of such a big vehicle, though. Last year, he drove the No. 88 transporter to Pocono for the July race.

First Time, Sort Of: Sunday’s Save Mart 350 might be Kevin Harvick’s first Winston Cup road-course race, but it won’t be Harvick’s first race at Sears Point Raceway.

The driver of the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet won a NASCAR Winston West race here in 1998. He’ll drive the same car Dale Earnhardt drove a sixth-place finish at Sears Point a year ago and will start from the outside of Row 6 after qualifying 12th Friday.

“It’s a different deal in a Winston Cup car, but I’ve been able to win here before, so I’m pretty familiar with it,” Harvick said. “We’ll see just how much different of an animal it is in a Winston Cup car.”

Good Experience? Ron Hornaday has also had some success at Sears Point in the past, winning races in both the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Series in 1995.

Hornaday, however, suffered the only accident of the morning practice session Friday when he wrecked his No. 14 Conseco Pontiac coming out of the final turn. His back-up car had a small electrical fire near the end of Winston Cup practice, as well. The team replaced the wiring harness and pulled the engine from the primary car to install into the backup for qualifying.

The rookie driver qualified 38th and took a provisional, and is currently 32nd in the Winston Cup points standings and third behind Harvick and Kurt Busch in the chase for the Rookie of the Year Award.

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