Ward Burton overcomes poor track conditions in New England 300
Sunday, July 21st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
LOUDON, N.H. (AP) _ For the first time since the Daytona 500, nothing went wrong for Ward Burton.
Burton, stuck in a miserable slump since winning the season-opening race, found a groove to drive in, avoided all the accidents caused by a hazardous racing surface and patiently worked his way through the field at New Hampshire International Speedway on Sunday.
Burton started 31st in the New England 300 and assumed he had little hope of snapping his streak of poor finishes on a track that has never been easy to pass on by overtaking Matt Kenseth with 10 laps to go and beating Jeff Green to the finish line by more than three seconds.
``I knew if we stayed out of trouble we could have a decent run, but obviously I didn't expect this,'' Burton said. ``We ran good all day and we didn't break and that's what's been killing us all year.''
Burton has been awful since winning the season-opening race _ he came to New Hampshire with just two other top-10 top finishes and had finished 33rd or worse in six of the last seven races.
But he never had trouble getting his No. 22 Dodge around the slippery surface in turns 3 and 4 _ where five of the 14 cautions began because cars slid out of the groove.
``It took me three-to-five laps to get any grip at all,'' Burton said. ``The track has always been like that. ``I tried to stay on the inside groove on both ends because that's where the grip was at.''
Burton had worked his way into second place when Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought out the final caution by hitting Todd Bodine and spinning out with 14 laps to go.
Kenseth, who had passed Dale Jarrett for the lead just three laps earlier, had been pulling away from the field before the final yellow period. The race went green with 12 laps to go, Kenseth cut his right rear tire, and Burton had no trouble getting past him two laps later.
Green was never close enough to run Burton down and had to settle for a career-best second-place finish.
Jarrett finished third, then his Ford failed post-race inspection because his car was about an eighth of an inch too low.
Rusty Wallace was fourth, followed by rookie Ryan Newman, Todd Bodine, Robby Gordon, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Elliott Sadler. Kenseth had to pit after losing his tire and finished 33rd.
The race was marred by poor track conditions even though owner Bob Bahre spent $200,000 on new pavement to improve racing conditions.
Drivers believed the track surface, which showed signs of coming apart during Saturday's final practice session, began to split early in the race.
Sadler spun out in turn 4 on lap 60 and Kyle Petty hit the wall there on lap 106. Drivers complained over their radios about the slick surface and gravel popping off their fenders every time they exited turns 3 and went through turn 4.
``The track has fallen completely apart, I mean, there's nothing but gravel out there,'' radioed Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner here.
``They need to sweep it or something because the groove is completely changing and moving lower and lower. The apron is the only place we can race.''
It got worse when Tony Stewart, running in fourth, slid up the track in turn 4 and straight into the wall on lap 123. An angry Stewart refused the mandatory trip to the infield care center, walking straight back to his motor home and declining to discuss the wreck.
But his crew chief was livid, blaming the track surface for knocking them out of the race and into a 39th-place finish.
``The place has got no grip, you can't race on it and the asphalt is coming up all over the place,'' Greg Zipadelli said. ``We just got up a little bit out of the groove _ but there is no groove, that's the frustrating part. He got in the junk and wrecked a perfectly good race car.''
Later, when Jeff Gordon slipped out of the groove and brushed against the wall, he angrily called on NASCAR to stop the race.
``NASCAR, they need to red-flag this race _ it is not safe to be out on this race track,'' he radioed. ``All I did was get like a foot wide and the thing almost went straight into the wall. It was like I was on ice, pure ice.''
The track was not sealed this year, but new pavement was put down in the corners at each end of the flat, 1.058-mile oval in May in an attempt to create a second racing line and give drivers a better chance to pass.
It worked in turns 1 and 2, where the track conditions were fine and racing was competitive. But turns 3 and 4 were a mess and the drivers made a point of letting everyone know.
``It was just terrible,'' Green said. ``If you got up a half-a-car width too high down there, you'd get in those marbles. I'm not sure, but I think that's the blacktop coming up.''
NASCAR tried to check the conditions of the track during caution periods, sending official Gary Nelson out in a safety vehicle to asses the surface.
Nelson later said it did not appear the track was separating and he speculated the problem was rubber building up on the pavement.
``We're still looking at it because I don't understand it,'' Nelson said. ``If you look at (turns) 1 and 2, there was competitive racing and a lot of passing. So the focus is what happened at the other end of the track because it appeared to be two different tracks.''