McClure Team to Miss NAPA Race
FONTANA, Calif. (AP) _ It’s been a horrible year for car owner Larry McClure.
After struggling through the early weeks of the Winston Cup season with Robby Gordon at the wheel of his Morgan-McClure Motorsports Chevrolet, McClure fired the driver and brought Kevin Lepage in as an interim choice.
Lepage had three straight top-20 finishes before an overheating problem left him 42nd a week ago in Talladega.
Worse, Sunday’s NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway will be run without the No. 4 car after Lepage came up 37th in qualifying, missing an automatic starting position by one spot and 28 hundredths of a seconds. The team had used up all of its provisionals, so McClure’s crew packed up and began the long trek back to its base in Abingdon, Va.
It is the first time in 13 years and 408 races that the team has failed to start a race. The last time was in 1988 in Richmond, Va., where Rick Wilson failed to make the lineup and the team had used up its provisionals.
``We dug ourselves into a hole the first few races,″ said McClure, alluding to provisionals used by Gordon. ``We’re paying the price for it now.
``I feel responsible for this mess. I feel like I made the wrong decision early and the results are showing. We cannot dwell on this. I feel like we have hit rock bottom and it is time to climb out of this hole fighting.″
Although he came up short Friday, McClure said he still intends to sign Lepage as his driver for the rest of the season.
``The contract is not signed yet but we’re close to signing a deal,″ he said.
As for missing the race, McClure said, ``It will be strange not being at the track Sunday.″
CALIFORNIA DREAMING: Although Jeff Gordon is starting 17th in the 43-car field on Sunday, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call him the favorite.
His record on the 2-mile California oval is little short of spectacular.
Gordon has won two of the first four Winston Cup races here, as well as leading 287 laps. He is the only driver to have completed all 1,000 laps.
``Those are the types of numbers we need at every track,″ Gordon said. ``I’ve always liked racing at places like California and Michigan. The track is wide and gives you plenty of room to run and race side-by-side.″
Actually, the driver born in Vallejo, Calif., loves running in his native state. He has won five of the last eight Winston Cup races in California, including the two here and three straight on the road course at Sears Point in Sonoma.
His worst showing out here came last spring when he started 26th and finished 11th.
``We just never got the track position we wanted,″ Gordon said. ``My car was so much more difficult to drive in traffic, compared to not being in traffic. I’d rather do what we did in `97 and `99. Keep the car out front in the clear air, lead the most laps and win.″
The three-time series champion enters the event second in season points with one win and five top-five’s. He has led in eight of nine events this season.
WIN ON TAP: Ray Evernham, who guided the Dodge re-entry into Winston Cup after a 16-year absence, says he isn’t surprised or concerned that an Intrepid has yet to reach victory lane after the first nine races of 2001.
``This is the 10th race in a five-year plan,″ said the former crew chief for Gordon, who now heads his own two-car team. ``I never promised (DaimlerChrysler) a win right out of the box, but Dodge has had a chance to win at Daytona, Atlanta, Talladega and a couple of other places.″
At least one Dodge has led every race this season and at least one of the new Intrepids has finished in the top five in five races this season, including a second-place by John Andretti in Bristol, Tenn.
Evernham is pretty confident that Dodge drivers, including his own Bill Elliott and rookie Casey Atwood, can make an impact on Sunday.
``This deal is so new, but we’re growing every week,″ Evernham said. ``We’re not going to be too bad, especially with what we learned at Texas (earlier this month).″
CENTURY MARK: Steve Park will be making his 100th Winston Cup start here Sunday.
``I can tell you that I hope the next 100 don’t come as hard as the first 100 because I think we all know what I went through in my rookie year, getting busted up and missing a lot of races,″ said Park who went through extensive physical therapy following a crash during practice in Atlanta in the spring of 1998.
Park, who drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc., also has had to contend with the death earlier this season of team owner and mentor Dale Earnhardt.
``It definitely hasn’t been an easy 100 races and, to be honest, it snuck up on me,″ Park said. ``I know we won in our 77th race, so I cant believe 23 races have gone by since then.
He won for the first time last August on the road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y., then added an oval victory in Rockingham, N.C., the week after Earnhardt was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500.
``I also think it’s pretty cool to be able to say that in those 100 races that we’ve won two, maybe three after Sunday, and there’s not a lot of guys out there can say that,″ Park added.
SPARK PLUGS: Gordon (287), Bobby Labonte (120) and Mark Martin (193) have led a total of 600 of the 1,000 Winston Cup laps run at California Speedway. ... Bobby Hamilton, coming off a victory last Sunday in Talladega, Ala., has finished 18th or worse in each of the four California races. ... Three of the four Cup races here have been won from a top-five starting position, although Jeremy Mayfield won from 24th last year. ... Martin and Sterling Marlin are the only drivers to have led at least one lap in every race this season, while Mayfield and Terry Labonte have started all nine races and have yet to lead. ... Chevrolets have led 1,622 of the 3,000 laps run so far in 2001. Ford is next with 775, followed by Dodge with 448 and Pontiac with 155.