WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd share the front row and the best chance for victory in the NASCAR Global Crossing. Lurking six rows behind them is the man who has won this race four times in five years.
Starting 13th today (1 p.m., NBC-26) will be Winston Cup series leader Jeff Gordon, the master of NASCAR road courses. He holds a 160-point lead over Jarrett and is 179 ahead of Rudd.
"Yeah, 160 points may seem insurmountable," Jarrett said. "But what you have to realize is that he got the lead in just two weeks, and it can go away just that quick."
Jarrett's strategy is simple: Win the race and let the points take care of themselves. But he knows he has no room for failure if he plans to rally for his second championship.
"We can't give up anything anywhere," Jarrett said. "The other side of it is if Jeff should falter there are so many cars on the lead lap we can make up some points."
Jarrett's first order of business is beating Rudd to the first of 11 turns on the 2.45-mile track. After that, it's every man for himself. But Jarrett doesn't think he and two-time Watkins Glen winner Rudd will have a problem sorting things out.
"We're going to be smart about it," he said. "Whoever gets there first will have it."
Jarrett certainly hopes he's the one, because passing is so difficult that a well-prepared car driven capably from the pole can control the race. He says being up front for as many laps as possible is the key.
A driver in the lead is able to choose his own racing line and decide when he'll pit.
"You don't have to do anything crazy to pick up track position," Jarrett said.
Jarrett is seeking his 29th career victory, but his first on either of NASCAR's two road courses. While he doesn't believe winning on a serpentine layout is immediately essential, he's a proud driver hoping to become more versatile.
His 1999 series championship was carved out with consistency at virtually all venues and the hope that points disasters could be averted here and on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. Now, a year after his best Glen finish of seventh, Jarrett wants to prove something to himself.
"You always want to beat the best," he said. "Jeff is at the top of the game."
Rudd takes more of a bottom-line approach to Gordon.
"He needs not as good a finish as ours," Rudd said. "But he is the guy. He's won a lot of races over the last few years here."
Some of the those wins and three more in Sonoma helped Gordon to three series titles. Seeking his first championship, Rudd knows he must take advantage of his strength at this track.
"We were a very fast car here last time, but we had a mechanical problem that kept us out of the thick of things," he said.
He won't say if he'll press for the lead at the start, but insists this is not track where patience is necessarily rewarded.
"Track position is more important," Rudd said. "You've got to have good track position all day long."
Because he starts 13th, Gordon must show more patience than he did a year ago when he tried an early pass on Tony Stewart and was involved in an accident that ended his unprecedented six-race winning streak on road courses.
"I don't know how important it is to get up there quick," Gordon said. "We'll just use the whole race to work into track position."
But the winner might be none of them. Canadian Ron Fellows, a winner of five NASCAR Busch and truck series races at the Glen and second to Gordon here in 1999, is no long shot.
He was the fastest driver in the final practice Saturday with Jarrett, Gordon and Rudd not far behind. But as a non-regular, he has to hope his pit crew can service him nearly as fast as the rest.
Fellows is confident about that, and says he just needs to stay in close proximity to the leaders. He believes he'll be particularly effective toward the end of any green-flag run.
"When the tires deteriorate to the point when you're slipping and sliding, my experience is an important factor," he said.
PIT STOPS: No one will dispute that starting near the front is the best way to win a race. That's certainly the case on the Watkins Glen International road course, where 13 of 18 winners have come from the first three rows. The polesitter has won seven times. ... Hendrick Motorsports, which fields Chevrolets for Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Wally Dallenbach, leads all car owners with five victories on NASCAR's oldest road course. Gordon won three straight from 1997-99, and the late Tim Richmond and Ricky Rudd also prevailed for Hendrick. ... Despite the annual influx of road-course aces, a second-place finish two years ago by Ron Fellows is the only top five by a non-regular since 1986, when NASCAR returned to Watkins Glen after an absence of 21 years.