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Cup rookies learn fast in California qualifying

By Steve Ballard
May 1, 2004

FONTANA, Calif. -- Apparently, experience isn't a prerequisite for qualifying well at California Speedway.

Kasey Kahne led a parade of four NASCAR Nextel Cup rookies who handled the wind as adeptly as they did the competition Friday to qualify among the top six for Sunday's Auto Club 500.

Kahne, 24, the 2000 U.S. Auto Club midget champion, earned his third pole in what will be just his 10th Nextel Cup start. He tied Ryan Newman, who blamed the gusty winds for his seventh-place qualifying effort, for the series lead in poles.

"I love qualifying, and it makes it even more fun when you've got a race team that (gives you) this great car," Kahne said after his 186.940 mph lap on the 2-mile oval in a Ray Evernham-owned Dodge bumped veteran Joe Nemechek to the outside of the front row.

"You don't have to start in front to win the race, by any means, but it sure feels good to win the pole."

Three runner-up finishes have helped Kahne build a substantial lead in the Rookie of the Year standings, but he has struggled a bit of late, giving his pursuers some hope. Three of them will be right on his tail at the start Sunday.

Behind Nemechek and third-place qualifier Jeff Green, first-year drivers Scott Riggs, Brendan Gaughan and Brian Vickers swept the next three spots. For Riggs and Gaughan, it's the best qualifying efforts of their brief careers.

"Our career bests keep coming," said Gaughan, who was plucked from the NASCAR truck series to join Newman and Rusty Wallace at Penske Racing. "You keep knocking off those career bests and all you've got left is No. 1. That's what we're working on."

Nextel Cup points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified 10th, nine spots ahead of runner-up Jimmie Johnson. Defending race winner Kurt Busch will start 21st.

The wind blew all day but was difficult for the drivers to gauge because it kept shifting in intensity and direction. Periods of relative calm quickly yielded to gusts approaching 30 mph.

Kahne said he felt it but was not affected by it. He was in the minority, which probably explains why 42 other drivers will line up behind him Sunday.

"It feels different on every lap," Newman said of the wind. "It's sensitive in qualifying because you're so much on the edge in the first place. Then you get a little gust and it just kind of throws you off."

Nemechek, whose first career pole came on NASCAR's first visit to California Speedway in 1997, said the wind goes from being a minor irritant to a major problem when it can't figure out which way to blow.

The key to a fast qualifying lap is to carry as much speed as possible -- but not too much -- into the corners. It helps to know which way the wind is going to be blowing when you get there.

"You just have to pay attention," he said, "because your miles per hour are definitely going to pick up whichever way the wind is blowing."

Even a rookie can figure that much out.


Jason Leffler won the pole for today's Stater Bros. 300 NASCAR Busch Series race (3 p.m., WXIN-59). His lap of 182.223 mph bumped Martin Truex Jr. to the outside of the front row. Tony Stewart starts fifth in his first Busch race of the season and J.J. Yeley makes his fourth career start from the 26th position. . . . Stewart, who qualified 11th for Sunday's race, met Friday morning with Nextel Cup series director John Darby to discuss a pair of on-track incidents last week at Talladega, Ala. It was described as a friendly chat and Stewart was neither fined nor disciplined. . . . The public got its first look at the new lighting system around California Speedway in a lighting ceremony Friday night. The lights will be used in a race for the first time when NASCAR returns in September.

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