Originally created 05/03/04

Points race tightening up at top



FONTANA, Calif. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled with his Chevrolet throughout the Auto Club 500 on Sunday at California Speedway, but a 19th-place finish helped him maintain his lead in the Nextel Cup Series standings.

The third generation driver now has 1,453 points heading into the May 15 race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson, who was second Sunday, now is 27 points back in second place, while race winner Jeff Gordon is third, another 27 points behind.

Defending series champion Matt Kenseth is fourth, 96 points back, while Kurt Busch is fifth, 137 behind, Kevin Harvick is sixth, also 137 back, and Ryan Newman is seventh, 154 points in arrears.

HOW THE WEST IS WINNING: The starting lineup for Sunday's race provided all the proof NASCAR needs to show it's become a national sport.

There were more drivers born west of the Mississippi River in the 43-car lineup than drivers born in the traditional stock car-rich Southeast, including race winner Gordon and runner-up Johnson.

Fifteen drivers have hometowns from the west; 14 come from the Southeast.

Just as telling is the California influence.

There were six drivers from California - the same number as the sport's most traditional birthplace, North Carolina.

KEEP ON TRUCKING: A bunch of unhappy truckers created a big headache for the 100,000 fans that attended racing activities at the California Speedway.

Unhappy by $2.25-a-gallon fuel prices, some truckers parked their rigs on Interstates 10 and 15, the two main highways leading into the racetrack.

Other truckers traveled at 30 mph on the interstates throughout Southern California to create a huge traffic - and safety - problem.

ROAD RULES: NASCAR told its drivers during Sunday's pre-race meeting "cool down" laps are mandatory, not optional.

That clarification came a week after Tony Stewart made a sudden U-turn shortly after finishing at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, creating a crash with Terry Labonte.

A spokesman for Stewart said the driver was trying to avoid trash thrown onto the speedway by fans who were unhappy with NASCAR's decision to place Gordon ahead of Earnhardt during the final caution.

At the same time, NASCAR president Mike Helton said if fans litter the track like they did last week, future races could be stopped without completing the scheduled distance.

PIT STOPS: Ford's new cylinder heads were targeted for a California debut, but remain in the development stage, according to Robert Yates, the man responsible for building engines for all Ford teams.

The new engine part might be ready in a few weeks.

will lester/associated pressDale Earnhardt Jr. (8) races for position with Mark Martin (6) during the early laps of Sunday's NASCAR Auto Club 500.