Originally created 05/02/04

Young drivers take top starting spots



FONTANA, Calif. - The four rookies who are in the top six starting spots for today's Auto Club 500 are fast and fearless. But Elliott Sadler, who's learned the lesson the hard way in the past couple years, knows that doesn't always translate to success during the main event.

A year ago, Sadler had the second-best qualifying average on the Nextel Cup Series, but that prowess brought him no victories.

"I just think that some guys know how to get more out of their car on one lap than others do, they know the feel that they're looking for," Sadler said. "We had one of the best qualifying averages but it just didn't show on Sundays. Qualifying if great, but we needed to work more on our racing stuff."

Sadler's Ford is 14th on the grid for today's race (3 p.m., FOX). He's qualified among the top 15 in nine of 10 races, but his greater concentration has been with his position in the series standings. A victory at Texas has helped him stay in the top eight in the rankings - a position that's all-important because the top 10 after 26 races automatically qualify for the series championship during the final 10 races.

"I think if we can get out of the first 26 races, if we can get half of them top-10s, well have a great shot at being in the top 10 in points, so that's what we're trying to do," Sadler said. "If we can get a top 10 this weekend, we'll be back to half again - five out of 10 - so that's kind of the mood we're trying to get right now."

While Sadler's concern has shifted to the bigger picture, the younger drivers are consumed by speed - even if it's only for one lap.

Kasey Kahne, who's finished second three times in his rookie campaign, is on the pole with a fast lap of 186.940 mph. While he's clearly been the best of the first-year drivers, his three runner-up finishes - and three pole positions - have been matched with finishes of 30th or worse three times.

"I love qualifying and it makes it even more fun when you've got (crew chief) Tommy Baldwin and all the other guys on this race team that give me a great car for qualifying," Kahne said. "You don't have to start up front here to win the race by any means, but it sure feels good to win the pole."

Joe Nemechek and Jeff Green are the only veterans among the top six qualifiers. Nemechek is second at 186.737 mph while Green is third at 186.316.

Rookie Scott Riggs is fourth at 186.148 mph, Brendan Gaughan is fifth at 185.845 and Brian Vickers is sixth at 185.806. The rest of the top 10 includes Ryan Newman in seventh at 185.759, Sterling Marlin in eighth at 185.744, Rusty Wallace in ninth at 185.538 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 10th at 185.529.

Sadler said he's learned not to count on success.

"It's all momentum," he said. "This is a tough sport that'll knock you off the bottom run really quick. One week you're happy, the next week you're not."

While NASCAR requires teams to use the same car and engine during time trials and the race, teams generally make several changes to the suspension in between sessions since qualifying lasts just a handful of laps and the main event today will last 250.

In Saturday's final practice session at the two-mile speedway located 45 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, only one of the six top-qualifying rookies was among the top 19 fastest drivers. Kahne was 24th-best, more than 2 mph slower than Jimmie Johnson.

Kahne's strength have been at the 1.5-mile speedways. While California is bigger at two miles, the lack of significant banking makes it react like the kind of tracks where he's found success.

"We wanted to get through Martinsville (a half-mile speedway) and Talladega (a 2.5-mile superspeedway)," he said. "We finished both of them, but not where we wanted. We've been looking forward to Fontana and racing on the west coast. It's a good racetrack, and it kind of suits my driving style, I guess."

Sadler said he's learned not to count on success.

"It's all momentum," he said. "This is a tough sport that'll knock you off the bottom run really quick. One week you're happy, the next week you're not."

A lesson learned the hard way.