DOVER, Del. (AP) _ It was hot _ just about 100 degrees _ so perhaps the thought process of Indy Racing League rookie Scott Harrington was warped by the heat.

``I love this place,'' Harrington said of Dover Downs International Speedway.

That's not a sentiment often expressed about The Monster Mile. The high-banked concrete oval long ago earned its nickname.

In fact, IRL ace Eddie Cheever says Dover is just as difficult as the street course in Monte Carlo, a layout Formula One drivers contend is the most physically demanding in the world. Cheever once raced in F1.

``We haven't been out of the top 10 in any practice session,'' Harrington said Saturday after a qualifying run of 180.415 mph put him fifth on the grid for Sunday's MBNA Mid-Atlantic 200. ``The car is comfortable.''

But Harrington, whose Aurora-powered Dallara gave him the best starting spot of his career, isn't figuring his first race at Dover will be easy.

``Staying out of trouble,'' he said when quizzed on his race day battle plan. ``This is a fast place, and things happen very quickly around here.

``It's important to qualify well, but staying out of trouble is the key.''

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HAIR-RAISING TALE: Jeff Ward, hoping the MBNA Mid-Atlantic 200 will result in the first victory of his three-year IRL career, will do just about anything to get it. So would some of the crewmen on his Yahoo! Pagan Racing team.

Jason Sheets, Brad Brewer and Rusty Shelden have dyed their hair blond in a superstitious attempt to end the drought at 0-for-20.

``I'd dye my hair purple if I thought it would bring us our first win,'' said Sheets, the team's left rear tire changer. ``The blond hair deal is just a team unity thing right now.''

They won't have to worry about hue or tint should Ward _ four times a second-place finisher _ prevail Sunday. At that point, the crew members will head for the barbershop to have their heads shaved.

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GROOM TO BE: After riding the high banks of Dover on Sunday, Stephan Gregoire will fly off to matrimony.

``We have been planning to get married for some time now, but with my schedule it was difficult to find the right time,'' said the 30-year-old Frenchman, who will marry Virginie Houot. ``We are going to France directly after this race,''

Gregoire will return in time to drive for Dick Simon Racing in the next IRL event, the Colorado 200 on Aug. 28 at Pikes Peak International Raceway.

``With luck, my last race as a bachelor will bring us a great result,'' said Gregoire, whose best career finish was second at Pikes Peak in 1997.

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PIT STOPS: Dover Downs officials, in the second year of their three-year contract with the IRL, are hoping for a larger crowd than they had last July for the inaugural race. But excruciating heat probably will hold down the walkup crowd. Last year, about 25,000 saw the first open-wheel race at the track since 1969. ... The facility, which held 107,000 in 1998, has 15,000 additional seats this year. ... Drivers learned the true meaning of the track's nickname _ The Monster Mile _ when only 10 of 22 starters were running at the end last year. ... The race, slowed by seven cautions for 99 of 248 laps in 1998 _ limiting Scott Sharp's winning average speed to 93.318 mph _ has been reduced to 200 laps this year. ... Only Sharp and Buddy Lazier were on the lead lap when the crash-filled race ended in 1998. ... Vegas.com, which has among its media holdings the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, will sponsor the IRL race Sept. 26 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The event will be known as the vegas.com 500.