Young Drivers Dominate Qualifying for NAPA 500

Saturday, April 27th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FONTANA, Calif. (AP) _ Ryan Newman can almost taste his first Winston Cup victory.

The 24-year-old rookie led a pack of NASCAR's young guns into the top 10 Friday, winning his second career pole in qualifying for the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway.

Newman, who set a stock car track record with his lap of 187.432 mph, was joined on the front row for Sunday's race by 23-year-old Kurt Busch at 187.412.

While Newman and Jimmie Johnson have been locked in a tight battle for rookie of the year honors through the first nine races, neither has won a Cup race, yet.

``The way we've been running, I don't think it's far away,'' said Newman, who has two top-fives and four top-10s this season. ``We've been running up front, but in three, four, five races we've had some mechanical failures or driver errors.

``Those things are going to happen in your rookie season.''

Dale Jarrett made it a sweep of the top three positions by Ford with his 186.853. The 45-year-old former series champion also broke up the youth movement at the top of the grid, moving ahead of the 26-year-old Johnson and 31-year-old Jerry Nadeau, who qualified their Chevrolets at 186.620 and 186.244, respectively.

``It definitely was a young gun day until D.J. got up there,'' Busch said, grinning broadly.

The top five surpassed the previous record of 186.061, set in 2000 by Mike Skinner.

Carrying on the youthful theme of the cold, gloomy day, Elliott Sadler and Dale Earnhardt Jr., a pair of 27-year-olds, were seventh and ninth.

``It's just coincidence,'' Newman said. ``There's a bigger quantity of young drivers now and it's not so unusual that sometimes there a bunch near the top.''

Jarrett didn't necessarily agree with Newman's assessment.

``That's becoming a common thing, starting behind these guys,'' Jarrett said. ``Usually, I'm way behind them. They've got good cars and know what to do with them.

``I definitely bumped up the average age in the top five when I got out there,'' he added.

Intermittent rain Friday washed out qualifying for the Auto Club 300 Busch Series race on Saturday and postponed Winston Cup qualifying until 4 p.m. PDT.

By the time the last of the 46 cars that ran qualifying laps had been on the track, the wind had picked up, temperatures dropped into the mid-50s and a heavy, gray overcast shadowed the track.

``It was a pretty drastic change and, when the weather changes like that, the whole performance of the car is different,'' said Newman, whose first pole came last May as he was running a limited Winston Cup schedule. ``When conditions change like that, it also means the driver has to attack the track differently. The change was the same for everybody, but the way the drivers adapted to it was the difference.''

Rusty Wallace, Newman's veteran teammate at Penske Racing South and the defending race winner, was 10th at 185.304, while series champion Jeff Gordon _ a two-time California winner _ was 17th at 184.905.

Bill Elliott, another veteran and a two-time pole winner this season, had to use a provisional after cutting down a tire during his first qualifying lap.

Joining Elliott at the rear of the 43-car field with provisionals _ based on car owner points _ were Ricky Rudd, Jeff Burton, Robby Gordon, Steve Grissom, Rick Mast and Shawna Robinson, the only woman in the lineup.

Failing to make the race were Brendan Gaughan, Chad Little and Hermie Sadler.