Inhis Notebook:/I Saturday

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LOUDON, N.H. – If you’re taking a poll, New Hampshire International Speedway would have many votes as the toughest track to drive on.

The track certainly would be Sterling Marlin’s choice.

“This is probably the hardest track to get hold of and get a car to handle for some reason,” said Marlin, who qualified 37th for Sunday's New England 300. “Whoever designed this track did something. They just weren’t thinking when they designed the track. It’s one groove, and you cannot pass on it.”

Marlin said he probably wouldn’t buy a ticket to watch a race at the 1.058-mile track.

“It’s boring. I’d run 10 Bristols in a row to this one race,” Marlin said. “It’s nothing against the people up here. It’s just a track that needs a lot of work on it.”

And Marlin isn’t afraid to make suggestions, saying the 12 degrees of banking in the turns aren’t enough.

“It needs some banking, and the entries to the corners need changing,” Marlin said. “You kind of run downhill going into Turn 3, but you’re in trouble when you pull off pit road here. If you look back, how many exciting races have you seen here? Not too many. I think Ernie (Irvan) and (Jeff) Gordon had a good battle, and that’s about the only one I can think of.”

Passing is extraordinarily difficult since there’s one groove at the bottom of the turns, and it’s hard to get enough grip to get by someone in front of you.

“It’s not a place like Richmond or Bristol where you can really set somebody up and get a good run off the corner,” Marlin said. “All somebody does here is just pull out and block you. At Bristol, you’ve got your hands full seeing where it’s going and if you get up under somebody you pass ‘em. Here, you get a good run up off the corner and they just pull down and block you. You can’t pass ‘em on the outside because there ain’t no groove on the outside.”

But an outside groove might develop during the race because track officials sealed the asphalt. There’s more grip than before, and drivers might be so scared to try the high line.

“When they put the sealer on, hopefully it's going to open up the outside groove,” Joe Nemechek said. “In years past, it got really slick as you moved up the track. I think that will make for a better race.”

The sealer did create one small problem. It made the track black, and since there were no lines painted on it, drivers had a hard time finding the groove.

“I was having a hard time seeing where I was,” Dale Jarrett said. “I thought it was just me, but I talked to Rusty Wallace and he was having the same problem. There are just no lines. It was hard to tell – with the sealer being so dark – where the rubber was and where the edge was.”

But as more laps were made and more rubber was put down, the groove became easier to see.

Easy, of course, is a relative term. But Jarrett said NHIS would be easier to drive since NASCAR took off the restrictor plate after last September’s race.

“It’s an easier track to drive – although it’s still very, very difficult – but it’s certainly easier to drive,” Jarrett said. “You have to really, really hustle the car around here and be right on the edge every time, every single lap through the corner.”

Teamwork wins: Jarrett and Robert Yates Racing teammate Ricky Rudd are in a unique position, battling for the Winston Cup championship. Jarrett is tied with Gordon atop the points standings, with Rudd 18 points back.

The pressure of racing for the title has yet to creep into either team, both drivers said.

“The two teams have actually come together closer now than they have been since I’ve been with the team,” Rudd said. “The two teams have worked closer together to whip up on Jeff. It’s going to take two of us to get him because that team is so good right now.”

“We’re working closer and accomplishing more,” Jarrett said. “We’ve always talked, but now we’ve really got our heads together and we’re able to see the results more on the race track.”

The teams are also unique in that they are located 25 miles apart. Jarrett’s shop is in Charlotte, while Rudd’s is located in Mooresville. Why? Besides having more space, the two teams were getting too competitive with one another.

“There got to be a lot of standing around and looking at what the other was doing,” Jarrett said. “Instead of work getting done, they were just looking and not really doing their job.”

Rudd initially didn’t like the idea of separating the teams, but has changed his mind.

“Robert is a lot smarter than I thought he was on this two-car deal,” Rudd said. “It is working right now.”

Benson the Man?: Johnny Benson was fastest in both practice sessions Saturday, turning a lap of 129.481 mph to edge Kevin Harvick in the first practice, then going 129.719 mph in Happy Hour to top Tony Stewart.

Hut Stricklin had been fast in both sessions, posting the eighth-fastest time in the first and the fourth-quickest in Happy Hour. But Stricklin crashed during Happy Hour and had to go to a backup car.

Others who were in the Top 10 in both sessions were Mark Martin and Ricky Craven. Pole winner Jeff Gordon was 18th in the first practice and 16th in the second.

Irwin Not Forgotten: The death of Dale Earnhardt has overshadowed the death of Kenny Irwin – who was killed last year at NHIS. But Jarrett, Irwin’s former teammate, won’t soon forget.

“You say it’s kind of been forgotten – it certainly hasn’t in our minds and in my heart,” Jarrett said. “I’ve thought a lot about Kenny over the past year and how he helped me as a race driver and how much I thought of him as a person. Even though his name doesn’t get brought up a lot whenever we talk about tragedies we’ve had, he brought a lot of this sport.”

Jarrett credited Irwin with helping him get better as a driver.

“There were a number of race tracks that he certainly helped me,” Jarrett said. “There were times when we were testing and he got in my race car and ran a good quicker than me. It made me realize that my car was a little better than what I was doing at the time.”

Irwin spent two seasons in Yates’ No. 28 but wasn’t able to run up front as consistently as he needed, and Yates let him go. Rudd took over last year and has the No. 28 in the championship hunt, but Rudd said it took several other elements to make it work, such as the addition of crew chief Michael “Fatback” McSwain.

“He had a lot more ability than he was able to showcase,” Rudd said. “When I made the change over to Robert Yates Racing, I don’t think I would have done any better than Kenny Irwin did. It was a package deal.”

Admiring Kyle: Kyle Petty returned to NHIS for the first time since his oldest son Adam was killed here last May. While Petty has declined interviews this weekend, other drivers have spoken in admiration of Petty.

“It was difficult to me to see him here and what he had to go through,” Jarrett said. “I can’t even imagine the emotions that are going through his mind in trying to do his job.

“There will never be a closure there. That was his son, and they were so close. It’s good that he can come here and race, and hopefully have a great day. (Friday), more than I was pulling for myself to have a good lap, I was pulling for Kyle to have a good lap. It had to be a very, very difficult day.”

Don’t Say That: There has been so much talk of NASCAR fixing races that the drivers are catching themselves whenever any kind of reference is made to such a scenario. Rudd was talking about selling his team and joining the Yates team when he made a momentary slip.

“I couldn’t have written a script any better to come back around and end up – that’s probably not good to say ‘script’ any more,” said Rudd, who collected himself before he continued, drawing laughter from the media. “I couldn’t have been any luckier – let me say it that way – to end up in Robert Yates’ operation.”

Odd Sights in the Garage Area: There’s always something going on in the Winston Cup garage area, and Saturday was no exception. Some interesting sights:

A Jeff Gordon rear bumper sitting on a lift on Michael Waltrip’s hauler. We wonder if Waltrip will ram Gordon in Sunday’s race, with the bumper easily accessible to Gordon’s team for a quick fix.

NASCAR president Mike Helton climbing aboard a colorful motorcycle, with NASCAR media relations director Danielle Humphrey slipping in the seat behind him. They did not, however, ride off into the sunset.

A quick fire erupted out of the exhaust of Jerry Nadeau’s car as the team was trying to get it in its pit stall. Crew members quickly urged Nadeau to crank the engine, and when he did, loudly revving it up, the fire went away. Black marks were left on the side, but image is everything. A few moments later the marks were wiped away.

Tolsma in Busch Car: Randy Tolsma will drive the No. 25 Team Rensi car in the Busch Series next week at Pikes Peak and at Indianapolis Raceway Park the week after. Tolsma drives Team Rensi’s No. 61 in the Craftsman Truck Series, which has the weekend off next week. The trucks and Busch cars run a doubleheader at IRP.

Andy Houston, in flux since PPI Motorsports has taken a couple Winston Cup weekends off, is in the No. 25 this weekend at Gateway International Raceway.

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