LOUDON, N.H. -- With New Hampshire International Speedway behaving badly, the place to be is at the front of the field, right where Jeff Gordon will start today (1 p.m., TNN) in the $2.3 million CMT 300.
A rash of accidents that have plagued the Winston Cup cars in practice and qualifying the last two days have placed a premium on the top starting positions. The reason for most of the mishaps is a slick surface in the turns on the 1.058-mile oval.
Because he has no one to pass, Gordon will have the first shot at finding the best racing line while the rest of the field will have to take its chances.
"It's not so bad in the groove," he said. "If you get out of the groove, it's pure ice. A lot of guys can attest to that."
A good one to ask might be Sterling Marlin, who goes from 40th position on the grid after two meetings with the wall in as many days.
"You can't race hard, because you're going to wreck," Marlin said. "If they don't fix it, they'll wreck 20 cars on the restarts."
The problem Marlin was addressing is one created by a dressing of the 12-degree banks with a reconditioner comprised of liquid asphalt and sand. It was put down in hopes of creating a wider groove on a track used almost constantly from April to October.
The feeling is that the longer the race goes today the better the track will be.
"We really liked the way the track conditions were when we left here," Gordon said, alluding to July 12, when the Jiffy Lube 300 was completed. "A lot of that sealer had worn off, the groove moved way out.
"It was a great race track when we left here, but they want to make sure this race track doesn't tear up, and you don't see the pavement come up. That's why they've got to do what they've got to do."
What Jeff Burton has to do is safely reach the front. That's where he ran most of the time when he dominated the race last month. He did that from the fifth position on the grid, but as one of the crash victims finds himself starting 25th.
He is undeterred, however.
"These things have a way of working themselves out," he said. "It will probably be OK."
If it is, he and Gordon could stage a stirring duel. Both are trying to become the first three-time winner in the six-year history of Winston Cup racing in New England.
Two of Burton's four career victories -- by 7.439 seconds last month and by 5.372 a year earlier -- have been at NHIS. Although neither came after he was forced into a backup car, he isn't worried about the equipment.
"It's a great car," he said. "It's the one we won Martinsville with."
That victory, last year in the Hanes 500, also came on a pure oval -- albeit only half the length of NHIS -- with 12 degrees of banking.
Gordon wants to build on his 67-point lead over Burton's teammate, Mark Martin, as he seeks his third series title in the last four years. He also wants to prove he's better than he looked in running third to both last month at NHIS, and wants to re-establish the edge he lost when his four-race winning streak ended last Saturday night.
"We pretty much got our tails kicked the last time we were here and last weekend in Bristol," Gordon said. "We came in here ready to go.
"Still, the trick is to be really patient. Keeping yourself from being too aggressive can be an advantage."
While Gordon seeks to rediscover momentum, Martin hopes his victory at Bristol can be the start of a role reversal with The Kid. And Martin, second in each of Gordon's victories thinks he can make a big run from his fifth spot on the grid.
"I have a great race car, the best car we've had up here in a while," Martin said. "We're anxious to get into this thing."
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