Practice makes perfect for Gordon

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2003

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. A victory by Jeff Gordon on Sunday would be a strong argument that there's nothing more important than practice.

After failing last year to get his fifth victory at Watkins Glen International, NASCAR's king of the road decided to use one of five allowable testing sessions this season to regain the dominance he had here in the late 1990s. It paid off Friday, when he won the pole for the Sirius at The Glen.

''It really took me about a day and a half to get comfortable going into turn one,'' he said of his test last month.

Negotiating the first of 11 turns on the 2.45-mile road course is critical. It comes at the end of a long, downhill straightaway, where a driver can easily ruin his day by sliding off the course and into a gravel trap.

The alternative is to be able to go hard and still make a smooth corner. Gordon, the NASCAR record holder with seven road-course victories, believes he's ready to do that thanks to hard work.

''If we hadn't tested and we just came here, I probably wouldn't be able to drive into turn one the way I can,'' said the four-time Winston Cup champion.

Gordon has won 55 times on ovals, where speed is the key to victory. But his success on the curvy road courses here and in Sonoma, Calif., is attributable to his understanding that slowing down quickly makes for a faster lap.

''You attack it under braking,'' he said. ''It's really just how hard you drive into the corners.''

Rookie Greg Biffle also tested here, and what he learned enabled him to qualify second. Like Gordon, he has had success at Watkins Glen, winning in the NASCAR truck series and finishing second in Busch competition.

Crew chief Randy Goss says Biffle has always been good on road courses, even though his experience is limited. They thought they would do well two months ago in Sonoma after an uncharged test at Road Atlanta, where NASCAR does not race.

But Biffle, who got his first Winston Cup victory last month at Daytona, finished 37th in Sonoma.

Tracy wins pole; rookie Hunter-Reay is second

LEXINGTON, Ohio Pole winner Paul Tracy will have some unexpected company on the front row for the Champ Car Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio.

Rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay was the second-fastest qualifier Saturday, crossing the finish line on his fast lap just before the session ended two minutes early when Mario Dominguez went off the track.

Castroneves leads record-breaking Gateway qualifying

MADISON, Ill. Helio Castroneves led a record-breaking qualifying session on Saturday at Gateway International Raceway, grabbing the pole for the Emerson Indy 250.

The Brazilian driver knocked former Indy Racing League champion Kenny Brack off the top qualifying spot with a lap of 175.965 mph on the 1.25-mile oval.

As fast as he was, the Indianapolis 500 pole-winner, wasn't sure how his speed was stacking up on his two-lap qualifying run because the readout in his Toyota-powered Dallara wasn't working right.

''I had no idea what the time I spent on the first lap,'' Castroneves said. ''I looked at the Pagoda (where top qualifiers are shown) and I couldn't see my number, so I thought, 'I guess now I have to go for a big number.' I just tried to keep my focus.''

Castroneves' fast lap was good enough for the third pole of his IRL career.

The top five drivers surpassed the previous track record of 175.120, set last summer by Castroneves' Marlboro Team Penske teammate Gil de Ferran, who went on to win the race.

Tony Kanaan, locked in a tight championship battle with series leader Scott Dixon and Indy 500 champion de Ferran, was the first to break the record with a lap of 175.574.

De Ferran came close at 175.586 before Castroneves jumped to the top. Dixon, who holds a one-point lead over Kanaan and three over de Ferran going into Sunday's race, also beat the record with a lap of 175.376, good for fifth on the 21-car grid.

Castroneves, who has not won since May 2002 in the Indy 500, would love to jump into the championship battle. He goes into Sunday's 250-mile event fourth, trailing Dixon by just 23 points.

One thing that could work to his advantage, starting from the front, is that the Gateway track is one of most difficult on the IRL schedule on which to pass.

''I hope it's a boring race and I'm leading by 10 seconds all the way,'' Castroneves said, grinning. ''But there's always a brave man who will show up in the second groove and try to pass.

''It's going to be an exciting race and there will be a lot of strategy going into it, maybe a fuel strategy. Anyway, it's a very challenging circuit, but very good because you just go for it.''

Former series champion Brack, fifth in the standings, 61 points behind, agreed, saying, ''Every track we go to there's competitive passes. This track is harder to pass on, but these cars are very passing friendly.''

Castroneves chalked up the higher speeds to more power from the Toyota and Honda engines, both new to the IRL this season, and favorable late afternoon conditions for qualifying.

Teams with Chevrolet engines have been suffering a power shortage all season, until GM came up with the new Gen IV Indy V8 that will be available to all the Chevy teams for next week's race at Kentucky.

The new power plant got its first race trial two weeks ago when two-time defending IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. driving for Pennzoil Panther Racing, the top Chevy team in the standings used it to finish second at Michigan.

This week, Buddy Rice and Red Bull Cheever Racing the second highest Chevy team got the chance to help develop and test the engine. Rice was the fastest of the GM teams at 172.100, good for 11th.

Hornish was 14th using the old Gen III engine.

Former series champion Scott Sharp had a bad day, crashing during the opening practice of the two-day event and qualifying 20th in his backup car. Only Buddy Lazier, another former IRL champ, was slower.

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