Many of the drivers who will race in Sunday's Save Mart-Kragen 350k are expecting the reconfigured layout at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., to be a 1.95-mile no-passing zone.
Officials removed a prime passing spot - and just over half a mile of race track - from the course in northern California's rolling wine country when they eliminated The Carousel. The loop that included two right-hand turns and a left-hander that had the distinction of being the favorite passing spot on the circuit, has been replaced by The Chute, a short straightaway followed by a fast, downhill right-hander.It's now the seventh of 11 corners, all of them tough for getting by another car at speed.
"There's still some places out there you can pass, but whether or not you'll still end up on the pavement after you make the passes is questionable," said Jeff Gordon, who will start from the pole for the fifth time in seven races.
"I like the new section. It's fast, it's fun, but there's no way you can pass there. We've seen since we got here that guys can barely go through there by themselves, so it's really going to be tough when they're around other cars."
Defending Winston Cup champion Gordon, who trails series leader Jeremy Mayfield by 36 points, smiled when asked if anybody will be able to pass in Sunday's race, lengthened by 50 kilometers (from 74 to 112 laps) because of the shorter course.
"I hope they can't pass," he said with a chuckle. "I'm on the pole."
Gordon's main competition this weekend, for both the pole and the race win, was expected to come from Mark Martin. But Martin, the defending race winner here, messed up his first-round qualifying run by getting into the dirt driving through The Chute.
He requalified on Saturday with a conservative lap that would have been good for fourth on Friday but will start 26th in the 43-car field.
"I was going for it yesterday, like I usually do, and I tried to get something that wasn't there for me," Martin said. "I picked the worst race of the year to do that at, I think, because this place is going to be absolutely a non-passable situation."
But Martin, who leads everyone with four victories this season and is fourth in the standings, only 53 points behind Mayfield, said he isn't ready to concede anything on Sunday.
"I think some of the guys that qualified up front will just pretty much watch lap times," the determined Martin said. "If their lap times are good, they're going to be satisfied. It's not going to be about lap times, though, it's going to be about passing zones. It's not how fast you run here, it's if you can pass or not that's going to make the difference."
Mayfield started 39th and finished 27th last year on the old 2.52-mile course. This time, coming off his first Winston Cup win last Sunday at Pocono, Mayfield will start fifth.
FRENCH GRAND PRIX: At Magny Cours, France, Mika Hakkinen was the fastest qualifier Saturday for the French Grand Prix. If he follows form, he will win Sunday's Formula One race.
Hakkinen took the pole position four times earlier this season, and each time he followed up by winning the race in his McLaren-Mercedes.
Michael Schumacher qualified for the starting spot next to Hakkinen, ahead of the Finn's teammate, David Coulthard.
The last time Schumacher's Ferrari split the McLarens - the only other time this season - Schumacher won the Argentine Grand Prix in April. Schumacher also won the last Grand Prix in Canada three weeks ago.
Hakkinen was clocked in 1 minute, 14.929 seconds on the 2.641-mile Magny Cours circuit to average 126.91 mph.
Schumacher did 1:15.159,ahead of Coulthard's 1:15.333. Coulthard has taken the other three pole positions this season for McLaren.
Eddie Irvine continued an improving Ferrari show by coming in fourth, 1:15.527.
"We are close, that is good for the race," Schumacher said. "Therefore I am pretty confident."
Schumacher has made statements since Canada that the Ferraris are improving and ready to challenge the McLarens. Now the performance of both red cars back him up.
"This is the closest the gap has been all season," Schumacher said. "Eddie as well is close, Together we can do work and try to give them a hard time."