Saturday, May 3, 2003

NASCAR fans, drivers love Richmond 400



By MARK DeCOTIS
Florida Today

Saturday night's Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond should live up to its name because ...

• It's the final short track race in the first half of the Winston Cup season and gives many drivers who need a boost in the points - Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin and Tony Stewart, to name three - the perfect opportunity to make up ground.

• It's the final race before the Mother's Day break and the 15-day circus that revolves around The Winston and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. A win here guarantees a driver who might not otherwise qualify a spot in The Winston all-star race and some peace of mind heading into the season's longest event, the May 25 Coca-Cola 600.

• It offers the last short track opportunity for drivers to settle scores until they hit Bristol on Aug. 23.

For those and other reasons - the furious competition under the lights, the fast racing, the atmosphere - Richmond is a favorite of fans and drivers alike.

"Just the fact that you can run two-wide there gives not only the drivers, but the fans a good short track race," Stewart said. "You don't hear people talking about the aero push. You don't hear people talking about a certain team having more horsepower than anybody else. It just seems to be good short track racing."

Terry Labonte will start on the pole for the first time in three years after turning a lap of 126.511 mph Friday.

Labonte's Hendrick Motorsports, teammate Joe Nemechek, qualified second.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was third.

The rest of the top 10: Labonte's brother Bobby, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kyle Petty, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.

Stewart has won the last two spring races at the three-quarter mile track, which has special meaning for him.

"It's one of those unique sized and shaped tracks to where you run side-by-side a lot of the night, but at the same time, you separate from each other and get a break to where you can catch your breath a little bit, too," he said. "To me, it's one of the perfect tracks on our schedule."

Ken Schrader also has an affinity for Richmond.

"The talk now is, if you were building a brand new race track, what would you build? And the answer is a Richmond, or maybe a Bristol," Schrader said.

"No doubt this is one of the raciest places we have now and it's great for the fans. It's a good show on television, too. And the night racing is pretty neat."

Wallace, who is riding a 72-race winless streak, is hoping Richmond holds magic for him this time. Wallace is tired of not winning and tired of being asked about winning.

Ricky Rudd who was winless for two seasons - 1999 and 2000 - feels Wallace' s pain.

"I've been there. It's very frustrating," Rudd said. "When you've had wins over the years and you get to the point where all of a sudden you've come up close but the win column still says zero, it can tend to work on you a bit.

You sort of just have to put it out of focus and continue to do what you've been doing and stick to your game plan."




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