Schrader To Start 8Th At Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Jimmie Johnson has never run a Winston Cup car at Darlington Raceway, but he certainly has a good teacher to learn from.

Jeff Gordon, Johnson co-team owner and mentor at Hendrick Motorsports, is a five-time race winner at the 1.366-mile, egg-shaped oval. He’s also won three poles at Darlington, so he knows a little bit about how to get the place.

So does Ricky Craven, who won the pole for Sunday’s Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 with a fast lap of 170.089 mph. He’ll start alongside Gordon, who qualified second at 170.071 mph.

Johnson’s fellow rookie, Ryan Newman, qualified third at 169.895 mph. Steve Park, making his first Winston Cup start since last September at Darlington, when he was injured in a Busch Series race accident, was fourth in qualifying Friday, followed by Johnson, Elliott Sadler, Jimmy Spencer, Ken Schrader, Jeff Green and Bill Elliott.

The pole was Craven’s second of the season after earning the top starting spot at Rockingham in February. In just his second season at PPI Racing, Craven said he and his team are starting to show their potential to qualify and run up front each week.

“It’s all about what you’re driving,” said Craven, who enters this weekend 14th in the Winston Cup points standings. “And the people with (team owner) Cal Wells and PPI Racing are giving me great cars every weekend. I’m driving great Tide Fords, that’s for sure, and it’s only going to get better. This team has really got it together.”

Craven’s previous best start at Darlington was second, in March of 1997, when he was with Hendrick Motorsports. His best finish was third, in March of 1996, with Larry Hedrick Motorsports.

Attitude, Craven said, is extremely important when qualifying and racing at Darlington.

“If you don’t like racing here at Darlington, it’s not going to like you back,” Craven said. “It all depends upon what your opinion is of the place. If you like driving here, then chances are that you’re going to do well here.

“If you don’t – and a lot of people don’t – then you’re not going to do as well. Fortunately I’m pretty comfortable with racing at Darlington, and hopefully we’ll be able to turn that into a victory on Sunday.”

Johnson has had a pretty successful run early on during his rookie campaign in the Winston Cup Series. He’s posted two top-10 finishes in his first four races and is 10th in the points standings.

He hopes to improve his position after Sunday’s race.

“This is my first Winston Cup race here, but I’ve got a few Busch Series races under my belt at Darlington,” Johnson said. “Jeff has had a tremendous amount of success here and I’m trying to learn as much as possible from him on the nuances of the track and the best way to run here. We had a good test session at Darlington in early March and left with a good idea on how best to prepare the Lowe’s Chevy for the race.

“To have this rookie team that we have and come off top top-10 finishes is a great accomplishment. That says a lot about this young Lowe’s Racing team. Hopefully we’ll keep our momentum and continue to run up front at Darlington.”

After the first four races of the 2002 season, Gordon is in 11th place in the points, just one point behind Johnson. So, can Gordon get any advice from Johnson about Darlington?

“He’s ahead of me in points, so maybe I need to go talk to him,” Gordon joked. “We did talk about the different lines before his test and we picked each other’s brains after the test. Before the race, I’ll probably remind him that it will be a long race and he needs to save his tires. I’ll probably remind him that I’m part owner of the car and that he doesn’t need to tear it up. I don’t need any extra headaches.”

Gordon has more recent success than he did when he first came to Darlington in 1993. In his first three starts here, he finished outside the Top 20 each time. In 15 starts since, he has finished outside the Top 8 only three times.

Overall, he has finished in the Top 3 nine times, or 50 percent of the time, and has led 998 laps.

“This has been a good track for us, even the first couple of races,” Gordon said. “We ran competitively, but I would get caught up in an accident or we would blow a motor. It wasn’t until 1995 before everything came together and we won our first race here.”

Newman has won two Busch Series poles at Darlington, so he’s qualified well here in the immediate past. The ALLTEL team has qualified extremely well the past few weeks, second at Las Vegas, second at Atlanta and third at Darlington.

“I really, really like this race track, and I have ever since I first got on the track here,” Newman said. “That’s all part of it. You do have to enjoy racing here, and there are very few places where I’d rather race than Darlington.

“It’s great that we’ve been qualifying well, and we’re glad to be starting up near the front. But then again it’s frustrating because I’d love to be able to pick up those few extra hundredths-of-a-second in order to win a pole. That’ll come soon for us, though.”

Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin qualified 11th. Other notables include: Bobby Labonte (12th), Jeff Burton (14th), Kevin Harvick (16th), Rusty Wallace (18th), Ricky Rudd (21st), Dale Jarrett (22nd), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (23rd), Mark Martin (31st) and Tony Stewart (36th).

Provisionals were awarded to: Terry Labonte, Buckshot Jones, Hut Stricklin, Casey Atwood, Rick Mast, Shawna Robinson and Andy Hillenburg. No driver went home as only 43 cars attempted to qualify.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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