BUSCH gets first career Winston Cup pole in unlikely place

Saturday, September 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) _ Jeremy Mayfield has done about everything at Darlington Raceway _ except win.

``Definitely overdue'' for victory at Darlington, ``The Lady In Black'' has let Mayfield win poles and lead laps but always seems to slap him across the face when it counts.

Mayfield will start third in Sunday's Southern 500 behind pole winner Kurt Busch and Winston Cup points leader Jeff Gordon.

``Darlington definitely owes us one,'' Mayfield said Friday. ``Hopefully, we can come here and turn our year around.''

Mayfield has always felt close to NASCAR's oldest superspeedway. He got his Winston Cup start with South Carolina native Cale Yarborough, and special attention was given to Darlington, where Yarborough won five times.

After moving to Roger Penske's garage, Mayfield showed his skill here. He has had five top fives in the past seven races and had to handle a horror show of bad luck.

Mayfield led 48 laps in March 1999 and had a strong car, but Jeff Burton won the rain-shortened race.

That Labor Day weekend, Mayfield again was powerful and led 69 laps. But more rain fell and he finished third to Burton in that shortened race.

Last September, Mayfield took the Southern 500 pole and led 104 of the first 119 laps, often stretching the lead to half a lap. But a wreck trying to pass Dave Marcis ended his day.

``When you look at it and look back at all the things that have happened to our car and our race team, it's things that are a fluke and kind of weird and things that just don't happen to other race teams,'' Mayfield said.

Busch became the first rookie since the late Davey Allison in 1987 to win a Darlington pole. Busch hopes such success happens a bit more often now.

His lap of 168.048 mph edged out Gordon's run of 167.916 mph at Darlington Raceway.

``This is something not to be expected at Darlington, so I'm caught a little by surprise as is everybody else,'' said Busch, whose best qualifying run was ninth in February at Rockingham, N.C.

``I was probably the most surprised person on the track,'' owner Jack Roush said.

Busch and Roush expected the team's success to come sooner this season after a fourth at Texas Motor Speedway and a third at Talladega Superspeedway. However, Busch has had just two top 10s in the 16 races since April.

``I had settled in for a long siege,'' Roush said.

The day _ as many at Darlington do _ looked set up for Gordon, who's won four poles here and was last to take a qualifying run. But his fast run broke off in the final turn, he said. The Winston Cup points leader will go for his fifth Southern 500 from the inside pole.

``We're happy with that,'' Gordon said. ``It obviously continues a run of good momentum for us.''

Busch waited out Gordon's run. ``That threw in that drama,'' Busch said. ``To be in the front row would have been something that I wouldn't have expected. We did have a car that we knew could be on the pole and run up front.''

Busch said he came close to the wall in turns one and two, but the tires kicked in at the right moment.

After Gordon in the grid came the Penske teammates of Mayfield and Rusty Wallace. Kevin Harvick was fifth followed by John Andretti, Ricky Craven, Ken Schrader, Bill Elliott and defending Southern 500 champion Bobby Labonte.

As if he needed it with a 308-point lead and 12 races to go, Gordon gave himself another edge over his nearest points competitors. While Gordon starts near the front and enjoys some clear air at tricky Darlington Raceway, Ricky Rudd and Dale Jarrett qualified deep in the grid at 26th and 27th respectively.

Rudd said the only way Gordon would lose the points lead was with a few mechanical failures on race day. ``We're not going to run him down,'' he said. ``That's not going to happen.''