SONOMA, Calif. -- Many of the drivers who will race in today's Save Mart-Kragen 350k are expecting the reconfigured layout at Sears Point Raceway to be a 1.95-mile no passing zone.
Officials removed a prime passing spot -- and just over half a mile of race track -- from the course in Northern California's rolling wine country when they eliminated The Carousel. The loop that included two right-hand turns and a left-hander that had the distinction of being the favorite passing spot on the circuit, has been replaced by The Chute, a short straightaway followed by a fast, downhill right-hander.
It's now the seventh of 11 corners, all of them tough for getting by another car at speed.
"There's still some places out there you can pass, but whether or not you'll still end up on the pavement after you make the passes is questionable," said Jeff Gordon, who will start from the pole for the fifth time in seven races.
"I like the new section. It's fast, it's fun, but there's no way you can pass there. We've seen since we got here that guys can barely go through there by themselves, so it's really going to be tough when they're around other cars."
Defending Winston Cup champion Gordon, who trails series leader Jeremy Mayfield by 36 points, smiled when asked if anybody will be able to pass in Sunday's race, lengthened by 50 kilometers (from 74 to 112 laps) because of the shorter course..
"I hope they can't pass," he said with a chuckle. "I'm on the pole."
Gordon's main competition this weekend, for both the pole and the race win, was expected to come from Mark Martin. But Martin, the defending race winner here, messed up his first-round qualifying run by getting into the dirt driving through The Chute.
He requalified on Saturday with a conservative lap that would have been good for fourth on Friday, but will start 26th in the 43-car field.
"I was going for it yesterday, like I usually do, and I tried to get something that wasn't there for me," Martin said. "I picked the worst race of the year to do that at, I think, because this place is going to be absolutely a non-passable situation."
But Martin, who leads everyone with four victories this season and is fourth in the standings, only 53 points behind Mayfield, said he isn't ready to concede anything on Sunday.
"I think some of the guys that qualified up front will just pretty much watch laps times," the determined Martin said. "If their laps times are good, they're going to be satisfied. It's not going to be about lap times, though, it's going to be about passing zones. It's not how fast you run here, it's if you can pass or not that going to make the difference."
Mayfield started 39th and finished 27th last year on the old 2.52-mile course. This time, coming off his first Winston Cup win last Sunday at Pocono, Mayfield will start fifth.
"I usually come here and hate this place," he said. "But I like it now. We needed to be up front here to have a shot at the championship. We knew that, and that's what we got."
Ricky Rudd, the winner of the inaugural Winston Cup race here in 1989 and one of NASCAR's best road racers, will start 15th on Sunday.
"It's a different race track," Rudd said. "Even though you just change one section of it, it gives you a while different way of looking at the race track.
"It's probably made it a lot easier to drive, but it's going to take away some of the passing spots. We'll just have to see how it plays out. It seems like we're always saying you can't pass on these tracks and then you get in the race and you pass more. Maybe we'll be passing more in that old turn seven, once we get more used to it."
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