Gordon Takes NASCAR Pole

Sunday, March 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Jeff Gordon's so good at Darlington Raceway, he doesn't even need to run it to finish in front.

Gordon gained his third consecutive pole in Darlington's spring race after qualifying was canceled because of fog Saturday. It was his fourth career pole here and had him anxious for his sixth career Darlington victory — the first since the 1998 Southern 500 — at the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 Sunday.

``We won here today,'' he told fans outside his hauler. ``Now, we've got to go win Sunday.''

When the thick fog hit the track, it delayed the first Winston Cup practice of the shortened NASCAR weekend nearly three hours.

When it appeared the weather would not brighten until after 10 a.m., Darlington president Jim Hunter told NASCAR it had to choose ``on qualifying or practice.''

``They chose practice,'' he said.

Three of Darlington's previous four races were delayed and shortened by rain.

The cars were lined up according to owners points from this season. Jeff Burton and Jeremy Mayfield, starting 36th and 37th, got in because of 2000 owner victories. Veterans Rick Mast and Dave Marcis, and rookie Andy Houston were squeezed out of the 43-car field.

Dale Jarrett, who won this race in 1997 and 1998 and was second to Ward Burton in 2000, will start alongside Gordon.

Kevin Harvick, who replaced the late Dale Earnhardt and won at Atlanta last week, will be third, followed by Johnny Benson, Sterling Marlin, Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Jerry Nadeau, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd.

Rudd will make his 700th career Winston Cup start, joining Richard Petty (1,177), Marcis (878), Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip (809) and Bobby Allison (717) at that milestone.

Ward Burton will try and defend his title from the 21st spot.

Drivers got in about 90 minutes of practice on the tricky, 1.366-mile oval. Another session was scheduled after the Busch series SunCom 200.

``It makes it easier for us to concentrate on one thing, race setup,'' Mayfield said.

Jarrett was one of the few drivers eager for a qualifying run. He had won poles at Las Vegas and Atlanta and said, ``I don't know that I would ever get a chance for three straight poles.''

That's what Gordon has now at Darlington.

Gordon won at Las Vegas and has two poles this season. He leads the points standings in a bid for a fourth Winston Cup championship.

``Things couldn't be going much better for us,'' he said. ``It's about getting some momentum early and getting the team to gel. We've been able to do that.''

With 1999 Winston Cup champion Jarrett next to Gordon, it's a familiar sight for Winston Cup drivers and fans.

``I don't think either of us had the kind of year we wanted to last season,'' Jarrett said. ``That meant we both worked that much harder to get back here. It's still a long way to go.''

This was the second weekend in the NASCAR experiment of holding qualifying Saturday instead of Friday. Organizers hope to give tired teams and drivers a break — albeit a short one — from the grind of a racing season.

The results so far are mixed. At Rockingham, rain delayed the Dura Lube 400's finish until Monday. Here, qualifying got fogged out. There will be one more short weekend at Dover, Del., for the MBNA Platinum 400 June 3.

The two-day work week ``seems to work fine if it's not raining or foggy,'' said Bobby Labonte, the defending series champion, who'll start 26th.