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DRIVERS POWER UP AT FONTANA RACE STRATEGIES CENTER ON MOTORS, GAS MILEAGE.

Byline: Louis Brewster Staff Writer

FONTANA - As far as the NASCAR Winston Cup drivers are concerned, it's time to go racing again.

No more talk of restrictor plates or waiting for the ``big one.'' The high-speed stock car circus that is Winston Cup is headed for California Speedway for its annual stop in Southern California. More than 110,000 are expected to turn out Sunday for the NAPA California 500.

``The track is definitely a horsepower track,'' said Rusty Wallace, who won last year's edition of the race by a scant 0.27 seconds over two-time race victor Jeff Gordon. ``I had so much horsepower that I was pulling everybody on the straightaways.''

The 45-year-old Wallace, who drives the Miller Lite Ford owned by Roger Penske, thinks he has much of the same for this year's 250-lap race.

``I started 28th at Texas this year and drove to the front and took the lead,'' Wallace said. ``I pulled out almost a half-a-straightway lead on everybody. Tony Glover (crew chief for points leader Sterling Marlin) came up to me and said, 'I told everybody, whoever looks the strongest in the straightaways at Texas will be the guy to beat in California.'

``And he came right up to me and said, `You're going to fly out there' because our motors are good.''

If Wallace repeats, a feat that has not happened in the first five races at Fontana, it would give Penske three consecutive wins at the state-of-the-art track he built. Jeremy Mayfield, driving a Ford for Penske and then-partner Michael Kranefuss, won the event in 2000.

In fact, Fords have won three times at Fontana. In addition to the Penske pair, Mark Martin won in 1998, sandwiched by Gordon's victories in the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

No driver has performed as well as Gordon at California Speedway. He has finished 11th or better in his five Cup appearances - four in the top five - and has led more laps (329) than anyone, and 135 more than Martin. Gordon's average finish at Fontana is 3.8.

Robby Gordon, returning to his native Southern California along with Mike Skinner (Ontario), Kevin Harvick (Bakersfield) and rookie Jimmie Johnson (El Cajon), doesn't think Chevrolet will have an advantage at Fontana.

``It will be interesting to see how the Chevrolets run at Fontana since they haven't done very well on the flat tracks this season,'' said Gordon, who will drive the Cingular Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress Racing. ``NASCAR gave us an inch in the nose that we raced with at Texas, but I don't really know how much that has helped us.

``I'm afraid you won't see too many Chevrolets up front at Fontana until something else changes.''

In the nine Cup races this year, Chevrolet has just one win. Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued the family tradition last Sunday by winning at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, one of the four restrictor-plate races of the season. Ford and Dodge have each won four races thus far.

However, three Chevrolet drivers are in the top 10, separated by eight points. Earnhardt is fifth, followed by Johnson and Gordon.

But, the real story at Fontana has been gas conservation. The history of the races shows there are long green-flag periods with an average of five yellow-flag periods for about 26 laps.

``Fuel mileage is something that is on your mind the whole time you prepare for California,'' said Harvick, who drives the Childress Goodwrench Chevrolet. ``The races tend to come right down to fuel mileage and knowing that, you always pay extra attention to it. You hope that you have an engine that is so good with fuel and a good-handling car that helps conserve it.

``With the tires Goodyear has made, you can run for a long time on them and run fast on them. So, it always comes down to fuel mileage.''

NAPA CALIFORNIA 500

Site: California Speedway in Fontana

Time: Sunday, noon

TV: Ch. 11

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NAPA CALIFORNIA 500 (see text)
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 24, 2002
Words:666
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