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Rain a negative for Rockingham

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- Gray skies, high winds and a steady rain is not what North Carolina Speedway needed in its bid to keep two races.

Bad weather wiped out all of the on-track action Saturday, as both Winston Cup practices were canceled and the Busch Series race was rescheduled for 11 a.m. Monday. That gives NASCAR another reason to take a date away from Rockingham.

Under the realignment proposal NASCAR first brought up last month, tracks could lose races in 2004 for a combination of criteria, ranging from attendance, availability of hotels and restaurants and even Mother Nature.

On NASCAR's checklist, the tiny track in the sandhills of North Carolina would fail in every category: today's race is not sold out, the surrounding area has limited attractions, and abysmal weather limited the Winston Cup cars to one hour of track time Friday in preparation for the Subway 400.

One area in which the track does receive high marks is driver preference, with most of the field fond of the high-banked, 1.017-mile oval.

"I hope we always run two races at Rockingham -- heck, I'd run 10 races a year at Rockingham if I were in charge of NASCAR," said Johnny Benson, who scored his only Winston Cup win here in November.

Drivers enjoy Rockingham because the emphasis is on skill instead of how good the car is. With more than one groove, passing is frequent, and cars can easily slice through the field.

"I think Rockingham is an awesome race track, from a driver's standpoint and from a fan's standpoint," Ryan Newman said. "I'll always say that a real race track is one you don't have to go out and figure out if there is a passing groove or if we can run the outside line.

"A lot of drivers will tell you they can come from the back here with a good race car and pass, whereas at other tracks you get stuck in the back with a good race car."

But Newman acknowledges that the facilities lag behind the new tracks to which NASCAR wants to give Rockingham's races, so regardless of driver opinion, the track probably is in trouble.

"If it was up to me, and if I was a race track promoter, I'd build a race track like this at a different venue, provided the market was right, just because I think this is a good race track," he said.

If it was up to Jamie McMurray, who won the Busch race here in November, NASCAR would leave Rockingham alone and set its sights on other tracks -- like Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.

"I love this place. This is the best race track of any of them," McMurray said. "They could blow up Darlington. ... I hate that place."

McMurray is the highest starting rookie in today's race; he'll start from the seventh spot.

Like most teams, McMurray used what little track time there was Friday to run the car in its race setup.

So with the rain falling and the realization that there would be no practice Saturday, it was obvious in the garage who made the right call in eliminating the emphasis on qualifying the day before. "Good thing we practiced (Friday)," said Lee McCall, Sterling Marlin's crew chief.

CHECKER SCHUCK'S KRAGEN NATIONALS: Doug Kalitta claimed his second top qualifying position this season, leading a parade of track-record performances in Chandler, Ariz. Tony Pedregon and Bruce Allen also were top qualifiers.

Kalitta drove his dragster to a track-record time of 4.512 seconds at 328.62 mph to top the 16-car Top Fuel order.

Pedregon claimed both ends of the track record in Funny Car while taking his first No.1 qualifying position of the season and the 18th of his career. He ran a 4.789 at 322.11 in a Ford.

Defending event winner Allen earned his first top position at this track and 15th overall, leading the 16-car Pro Stock lineup. He clocked a track-record time of 6.831 at 201.31 in a Pontiac.

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