Sunday, July 28, 2002

Evernham still seeking answers

Auto Racing roundup

The Associated Press

        LONG POND, Pa. — Car owner Ray Evernham was never among those who figured he had all the answers to making a stock car go faster.

        So, to learn even more, Jeff Gordon's former crew chief entered Winston Cup driver Casey Atwood in an ARCA event Saturday at Pocono Raceway in a research and development Dodge.

        Atwood made the new stuff work well, winning the Pepsi 200.

        “We had some motor parts that we needed to test,” Evernham said. “You could see parts of that as early as next week.”

        He was alluding to the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

        The car was expected to win Saturday, but Evernham said he considered the race little more than a free test.

        Pressed on the issue, Evernham quipped, “If we didn't win, Dodge was going to fire both of us.”

        Atwood was delighted but kept the victory in perspective. He said he would not be satisfied until he gets his first Winston Cup victory.

        “We had a great car that was able to come back through the field,” he said. “We caught all the cautions right.”

        Atwood fell to 11th when he didn't immediately pit with the other drivers during a midrace caution period because the crew believed he needed one more slow caution lap to have enough fuel to finish the race. Then he spent the next 25 laps trying to catch the front-runners.

        On the 71st of 80 laps, Atwood passed Jason Jarrett for the lead. Atwood then drove off to win by 7.49 seconds.

        “Maybe we learned some stuff today that we could throw in tomorrow,” Atwood said.

        He will start 19th Sunday in the Pennsylvania 500.

        Evernham became Dodge's point man when the automaker decided to return in 2001 after a 16-year absence from NASCAR's top division. Before that, Evernham guided Gordon to three of his four Winston Cup championships and the first 47 of his 58 career victories.

        TENACIOUS BODINE: Geoffrey Bodine doesn't believe the success of young drivers in NASCAR means graybeards like him should get out of racing.

        “Age is not nearly as important as attitude,” said the 53-year-old Bodine, a former Daytona 500 champion. “People ask me why I keep doing this, especially after the crash I had at Daytona a few years back. I was pretty darn close to losing my life.”

        Bodine was referring to a NASCAR truck series race in 1999, when his vehicle cartwheeled in flames and took out a section of catch fencing at Daytona International Speedway.

        The eldest and most successful of three racing brothers, Bodine is without a regular ride. On Sunday, he'll sit in for brother Todd, who had a commitment to drive in a Busch series event in Fountain, Colo.

        So, it's Geoffrey's turn to race against Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and other young chargers who weren't even born when he first strapped himself into a race car.

        “I think I am as good of a driver now as I have ever been,” Bodine said. “When I am no longer competitive, that's when I will step back and find something else to do.”


        DRIVING POCONO: Kyle Petty always enjoys the competition at Pocono Raceway, where he got one of his eight career victories in 1993.

        Petty likes to think he has figured out the fast way around the 2 1/2-mile triangular-shaped track, but don't ask him about the weather on the mountaintop.

        “It's that old joke if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes,” he said. “We've run races there in fog, had major summer thunderstorms, seen it hot as all get-out and had to wear heavy jackets in July because it was so cold. And all of that was on the same day!”

        PIT STOPS: Bobby Labonte's sweep of the June and July races in 1999 was the first since Tim Richmond won both in 1986. ... Only three of 49 Pocono races have been won from a starting position deeper than 20th. Terry Labonte was victorious from the 23rd spot on the grid in 1989 and from 27th position in 1995, and Jeremy Mayfield prevailed from 22nd in 2000. ... No make other than a Ford or Pontiac has won at Pocono since Jeff Gordon took the Pennsylvania 500 in a Chevrolet in 1998. Since then, there have been four wins by Fords and three by Pontiacs. ... Dale Jarrett, who won last month in the Pocono 500, has finished in the top five in 12 of his last 14 races on the mountaintop. ... Hendrick Motorsports leads all teams in victories at Pocono with eight. Jeff Gordon and the late Tim Richmond won three times apiece for Hendrick, and Geoffrey Bodine and Terry Labonte once each.

       Da Matta back on top at Vancouver

        VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Cristiano da Matta wasn't down for long.

        After struggling with fuel pressure problems that left him near the back of the grid in the opening round of qualifying, the runaway CART series leader stormed back Saturday to win the pole for the Vancouver Molson-Indy.

        Until Saturday, the one-hour qualifying sessions this season had been 40 minutes of waiting followed by a 20-minute, highspeed traffic jam. Da Matta couldn't wait.

        “We decided to go a little early because traffic was horrible yesterday,” the diminutive Brazilian explained. “Maybe we didn't have the best track, but I had a couple of clear laps with a clear track.

        “Everything that went wrong yesterday went right today,” da Matta added.

        He turned his quick lap of 1 minute, 0.339 seconds and 106.260 mph on his fifth lap around the twisting 1.781-mile temporary street circuit, just nine minutes into the session. That earned da Matta his fifth pole of both the season and his career — all on road or street courses.

        The speed also broke the track record of 1:00.872, 105.239, set last year by Alex Tagliani.

        The effort added one more championship point to da Matta's impressive series lead, putting him 51 ahead of runner-up and fellow Brazilian Bruno Junqueira, who will start 12th in the 18-car field Sunday.

        Paul Tracy, who won the provisional pole Friday with a lap of 1:01.888, 103.600, knew going into Saturday he would start on the front row, regardless of his second-round performance.

        That didn't keep the hard-charging Canadian, a local favorite and the 2000 race winner, from making a banzai run at da Matta in the final minutes of Saturday's session.

        Tracy, who didn't even get drive onto the track until 30 minutes remained, fell just short at 1:00.502, 105.973. That lap came with just 1:25 to go.

        “I'm a little disappointed in myself,” Tracy said. “I was trying too hard, clobbering the curbs out there. I didn't get the best out of myself and I wasn't as good as the car.”

        All three Team Kool Green cars qualified in the top five, with Tracy's teammates Dario Franchitti third at 105.874 and three-time Vancouver winner Michael Andretti fifth at 105.542, just behind Scott Dixon at 105.715.

        Scott Dixon, second fastest on Friday, slipped to fourth, while Kenny Brack, third in the opening round, fell to 10th.

        After Sunday's 100-lap race, the series will get one week off before racing on consecutive weeks on the road courses at Mid-Ohio, Road America and Montreal and the new street circuit in Denver.

        It's a pivotal stretch, according to Tracy.

        “If he has two bad races, like an engine problem, you're back in it,” said Tracy, who is 11th in the standings, trailing da Matta by 70 points as the drivers head into the 10th of 19 races.

        “There's a lot of guys packed in from third to 11th that can win races, bang, bang, bang, like he's done,” he added. “You get into a stretch of races like we have coming up — four races in a row — and you get going, you can rack up a lot of points real quick.”

        The leader, who has won five races this season and seven of his last 11, did not out of the race two weeks ago in Cleveland with an engine failure. But his closest pursuers, Junqueira and Franchitti also failed to finish and made no gains.

        “Da Matta has built up a points cushion that means right now he's not stressing over having problems,” Tracy said.

        Franchitti, who is 57 points behind, said, “It's going to be very difficult to catch Cristiano, but I know I'm pushing 100 percent and my teammates are pushing 100 percent. You never know what will happen.”

        Da Matta grinned when asked if he expects a battle for the championship.

        “I really hope there's not a championship battle, but we have half the season to race,” he said. “It's too early to make predictions.”

       Michael Schumacher edges brother Ralf to take pole for German GP

        HOCKENHEIM, Germany — Michael Schumacher held off younger brother Ralf in qualifying Saturday to claim the pole position for the German Grand Prix.

        Michael Schumacher, who won his record-tying fifth Formula One championship last week, clocked 1 minute, 14.389 seconds on his last lap for his fourth pole of the season and the 47th of his career.

        “It was my dream to have a pole here in Hockenheim,” the Ferrari driver said.

        Ralf Schumacher, driving a BMW-Williams, finished in 1:14.570 on the redesigned, shortened 2.8-mile circuit.

        The Schumachers last shared the front row at the U.S. Grand Prix in September.

        “It's the best way it can happen at the German Grand Prix,” Ralf Schumacher said about sharing the front row with his brother. “Clearly, Michael was better today, but as for tomorrow, we'll find out.”

        Rubens Barrichello was third in a Ferrari in 1:14.693.

        Juan Pablo Montoya, who had won five straight poles, drove his BMW-Williams to fourth place in 1:15.108.

        Ralf Schumacher won last year's German GP, while his brother was forced to drop out.

        That was the last time Michael Schumacher failed to finish a race. He went on to win 11 of the next 16, including eight of 11 races this season to tie the championship record of Juan Manuel Fangio.

        Michael Schumacher's last victory at the German GP came in 1995, while driving for Benetton.

        The new circuit seems to favor the 61-time Formula One winner.

        “I like this new circuit and in my opinion it is a great success,” Schumacher said after Friday's practice. “The new layout flows nicely and there are some overtaking opportunities.

        “It is quite demanding.”

        Kimi Raikkonen, in a McLaren-Mercedes, qualified fifth in 1:15.639. Giancarlo Fisichella, who missed the French GP after crashing in practice, was sixth in 1:15.690 in his Jordan.

       No smiles as Scheckter takes the pole

        BROOKLYN, Mich. — Tomas Scheckter, Buddy Rice and Eddie Cheever Jr. made Indy Racing League history Saturday.

        Then, they talked about just about everything other than their 1-2-3 finish in qualifying for Sunday's Michigan Indy 400, the inaugural IRL race at Michigan International Speedway.

        Few were interested in discussing the fact that Red Bull Cheever Racing became the first IRL team to put drivers in the first three positions, or that Scheckter and Rice will be the first rookies since the series began in 1996 to start a race in the front row.

        The issue of the day was the issues within Cheever's team.

        Cheever, who is an owner and driver, created waves on his team this week by adding Rice — who hadn't driven an IRL car before — as a third driver and giving him the crew that was working with Scheckter.

        Despite earning his third pole of the season — two more than any other IRL rookie ever — Scheckter isn't happy.

        “We came into this qualifying with a little bit of a disadvantage,” Scheckter said. “A lot of the performance parts that were on my car prior to this race were not on my car anymore. We've dealt with it good. I've got a setup on my car that was pretty hard to drive, and we managed to pull it off.

        “It feels like we've been pushed to the underdog team.”

        Cheever is not pleased that Scheckter has crashed six cars — five in races — this year. He dismissed Scheckter's complaining as “static,” and said he needs to mature.

        “I have some the same issues with my 9-year-old son,” said Cheever, who didn't join his drivers at the post-qualifying news conference. “I'm having a difficult day with my children.”

        Cheever said he's paying for the third car this week out of his own pocket because he wants his team to win its first race of the year.

        Rice is in the middle of the drama, but he wants no part of it.

        He just wants to drive.

        Rice, who signed a one-week contract, has failed to secure anything more than testing contracts since winning the 2000 Toyota Atlantic championship.

        “The problem between Tomas and Eddie is between them, it has no bearing on my situation,” Rice said. “It might be a one-race deal, so I might be out. I'm on a day-to-day program right now. I have no idea what's going to come as of Monday.

        “I don't have a full-time ride, so I'm going to keep driving whatever I have the opportunity to drive.”

        Scheckter, who was at an arm's length from Rice during Saturday's news conference, said he has no problems with Rice.

        “If I was in the same situation, I'd do exactly the same as he's done,” Scheckter said.

        The South African does have a problem with the way Cheever is handling him, especially after Cheever said he was looking for another driver following Scheckter's accident last week at Nashville.

        “It's disappointing for me that you have to read this sort of stuff in the press,” Scheckter said. “I'm taking it race by race. It depends what he says in the press (Sunday), or the next day. Maybe he'll get rid of me that way, fire me in the press.

        “I'd expect my team owner, as a team owner, to be the one to call me and speak to me about it, to be the mature one. I'm willing to sit down and speak with him, but that phone call hasn't come.”

        Cheever bristled at the criticism from the 21-year-old driver, whose father is 1979 Formula One champion Jody Scheckter.

        “My relationship with Tomas is through his manager,” said Cheever, referring to Enrico Zanarini. “I spoke to his manager before the race at Nashville, after the race at Nashville and before we were going to go with a third car.”

        Despite the infighting, Cheever said he is glad to have Scheckter under contract through 2003.

        “I remained committed to him,” Cheever said. “And I remain convinced that once the lights go on, we'll have a great race-car driver. ... The greatest way that he can prove his point is to win the race. That is what I hired him for.”

        IRL points leader Gil de Ferran will start 17th out of 25 drivers on the two-mile oval. Sam Hornish Jr., who is third in points, is in the fourth position and became the first IRL driver with 20 consecutive top-10 starts.

       Pressley edges Leffler in Michigan 200

        BROOKLYN, Mich. — Robert Pressley edged Jason Leffler by 0.102 seconds in the eighth-closest finish in NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series history to win the Michigan 200 on Saturday.

        Pressley, driving a Dodge Ram pickup, led 74 of 100 laps and won for the second time this season. He averaged a series track-record 142.208 mph in the third-fastest race in series history.

        Just two brief cautions, both for debris on the track, slowed the race.

        Pressley, who started eighth in a field set by owner points when time trials were rained out, came to the front for the first time at lap 15, passing Rick Crawford's Ford F-150.

        He led twice more, taking over for the final time — again from Crawford — on lap 170.

        Leffler, also driving a Dodge, began his charge with 20 laps remaining. He trailed Pressley by half a second at lap 198 and 0.3 seconds at lap 189 but was blocked by the leader as he tried to pass between the two-mile superspeedway's third and fourth turns.

        Pressley, who won the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, won $48,250.

        “I knew when we needed to go, we could step it up a little bit,” he said. “I was trying to hold him at bay there, but the guy is hungry, wanting to win the race, and he's been so close this year.

        Leffler finished second for the fourth time without a victory.

        “It's easy to say, 'Yeah, maybe one more lap and we could have taken the lead,' but it's a 100-lap race and Robert did what he had to do to stay out front for that long,” Leffler said. “He might have been pacing himself a little bit.”

        Travis Kvapil finished third, followed by Mike Bliss, David Starr, Terry Cook, Coy Gibbs, Lance Norick, Crawford and Jon Wood.

        Bliss took over the Series points lead from Ted Musgrave, whose Dodge suffered engine failure while he was in second place on the 36th lap. Bliss leads Starr by 29 points, with Musgrave another 53 behind with nine races left.

       Parker uses fuel economy to win at Pikes Peak

        FOUNTAIN, Colo. — Hank Parker Jr. used fuel economy to win the NetZero 250 on Saturday, easily holding off Busch Series leader Greg Biffle at Pikes Peak International Raceway.

        Parker, who started 23rd in his Dodge, beat Biffle by 11.452 seconds after making only two pit stops in the 200-mile race. Parker also gambled on fuel to win last year at California Speedway, his only other Busch Series victory.

        “Our car was good on long runs. It wasn't like we were just kind of throwing it up for fuel,” said Parker, who led the final 17 laps after Kevin Lepage pitted for fuel.

        “We had a fast car and we were just tying to get ourselves track position is all we were really trying to do. We weren't thinking as far as this was all going to fall on our plate. You never know. I mean, what if a caution had come out?”

        Biffle, who started 20th, and third-place finisher Jason Keller each made three stops in their Fords, with Biffle falling from first to eighth on his last stop on lap 189.

        Biffle, 77 points ahead of Keller in the season standings, fought overheating problems.

        “We ran 240 degrees all day long and 250 behind cars,” Biffle said. “The engine was running good. I was almost surprised we made it that far.”

        Parker averaged 113.350 mph in the race slowed by only two caution periods. The yellow flag came out on the third lap because of debris on the mile oval, and again on the 29th lap when Bruce Bechtel hit the wall in the fourth turn.

        Ron Hornaday Jr. finished fourth in a Chevrolet, followed by Lepage, Scott Wimmer, Mike McLaughlin, Jamie McMurray, Ashton Lewis Jr. and Stacy Compton.

        Lepage led a race-high 76, but gave up the lead to Parker on the 232nd lap to pit for fuel.

        “We had to come in,” Lepage said. “We were going to be about four laps short. We thought about maybe trying to stretch it, but we had such a great car, we knew we could finish in the top five easily.”

        Parker entered the race with just three top-10 finishes in 20 starts, with a season-best sixth in Richmond in early May. He's 14th in the standings, 831 points behind Biffle.

        “Today was just a great day,” Parker said. “Everything was on our side. Everything worked with us instead of against us. We've done a lot this year to have top-10 consistent cars, we just haven't had the finishes to show for it.”

       Elliott tries to set Pocono record

        LONG POND, Pa. — Bill Elliott knows the value of a fast lap, and hopes to parlay his latest into a record-setting victory Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

        “In any race as competitive as all these cars are, it's important to start up front,” Elliott said.

        But he realizes the qualifying lap Friday that gave him a record-tying fifth pole on the mountaintop won't be worth much unless his Dodge is still healthy in the waning laps of the Pennsylvania 500.

        Elliott was reminded of that a week ago, after his pole-winning effort at New Hampshire International Speedway became a 34th-place finish when a carburetor failed him.

        Under NASCAR's new one-engine rule, a premium is placed on engine durability. Still, Elliott won't attempt to maintain a pace below all out when the green flag waves Sunday.

        “I don't know if you can get away with that,” he said. “Everybody seems to run to the limit all day long.”

        Ricky Rudd did plenty of that last month, dominating the latter stages of the Pocono 500. But he developed a tire problem in the final five laps and lost the race to teammate Dale Jarrett.

        Rudd was upset, but at least he had an opportunity to race, something he believes was denied to all in New Hampshire. Poor track conditions last Sunday turned the New England 300 into a demolition derby of sorts.

        “It's nice to have a racetrack that we can race on,” he said. “You can run two wide.”

        In fact, drivers after restarts can run four or five abreast on the front straightaway at Pocono, dicing for position. Rudd insists no contender is eliminated because of track position on the unique 2 1/2-mile triangular layout.

        “If you get pinned up in the back you can go to the front,” said Rudd, who starts astride Elliott on the outside of the front row in the $3.7 million race.

        Elliott also isn't concerned about going to the front should he be shuffled in the 43-car field at Pocono. The track is essentially three drag strips connected by sharp turns, giving faster cars more opportunities to pass than most places on the Winston Cup circuit.

        But Elliott, who tied Ken Schrader's track record with his fifth career pole at Pocono, realizes patience can be a liability if a driver doesn't try to stay close to the front.

        “That's important, especially late in the race,” he explained. “If you get too far behind and don't get any cautions you just can't made up the ground.”

        While Rudd's Ford figures to be the biggest threat as Elliott tries to for a record fifth victory at Pocono, there are other contenders with solid credentials at the track.

        Elliott is one of four drivers who have won four times at Pocono.

        Dale Jarrett, who starts 15th, has won three times at Pocono. But the car he won with in June is back in the shop, and he has no way of knowing what to expect this time because crew chief Todd Parrott wanted to make a change.

        “You would think that if you win a race you would come back with the same car,” Jarrett said. “But Todd and our guys built a brand new one that we thought was a little bit better.”

        Also expected to make strong bids are Michael Waltrip, a winner three weeks ago in the Pepsi 400. His Chevrolet will go from the third spot on the grid, inside Elliott's teammate, two-time Pocono winner Jeremy Mayfield.

        Elliott has just one of his 41 career victories since 1994. But he escaped what amounted to six years in racing purgatory by selling his team to Ray Evernham and coming aboard as pioneer in Dodge's return last season after a decade and a half out of Winston Cup competition.

        Elliott won a race in 2001, but has become more competitive as this season has progressed. He has four top-10 finishes in the last eight races and stands 10th in points — his best showing since finishing eighth in 1997.

        Mayfield got the most recent of his three victories two years ago at Pocono. Now, he's hoping to benefit from the leadership of Evernham — who guided Jeff Gordon to three of his four Winston Cup championships and 47 victories before becoming Dodge's point man in its return to the top level of the sport.

        “Bill has been the solid car week in and week out,” said Mayfield, in his first season with Ray Evernham Motorsports. “I think now you'll see the 19 moving back up.”


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