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Benson leads field eager for Vegas race

By MIKE READLING, Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


Every driver on the Winston Cup circuit is looking forward to getting to Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the hope of putting one more race between himself and the tragedy at Daytona and getting back on a normal schedule.

The rain and eventual postponement of the race at Rockingham made a somber weekend longer and forced many teams to amend already tight calendars. Getting to Vegas and running Sunday's race without hitches will help those teams settle into a groove for the rest of the season.

Johnny Benson has additional reasons for looking forward to the trip west.

Benson never has won a Winston Cup race in 163 tries, but he has two top 10 finishes at Las Vegas, fifth in 1998 and sixth last year. And Benson shattered the Las Vegas Motor Speedway track record (31.293 seconds) during preseason testing, circling the 1.5-mile oval in 31.14 seconds.

Because it occurred during practice, Benson's record isn't recognized, but it should make Benson a favorite when official qualifying begins Friday.

"We ran good that day. But, it doesn't mean a whole lot," Benson said. "The weather is going to be different, the track temperature is going to be different and the rubber on the track is going to be different. We hope the results are the same. But to be honest, you don't know what's going to happen until you get there."

Earnhardt photo dispute

DAYTONA BEACH -- Attorneys for Dale Earnhardt's widow and the Orlando Sentinel are discussing an agreement that would allow the public to view -- but not copy -- autopsy photos of the NASCAR driver.

"The idea would be to balance the public's rights of access with the Earnhardts' interest in right of privacy," said Laurence H. Bartlett, an attorney representing Teresa Earnhardt.

Teresa Earnhardt sued Volusia County on Feb. 22, seeking to stop the county from releasing its medical examiner's autopsy photos taken after Earnhardt's wreck Feb. 18. A circuit judge granted the request, but Friday, a Sentinel reporter submitted a public records request asking for "any and all photographs" of Earnhardt.

Sentinel editors have stated they have no intention of publishing the photos.

However, "if these photos will help elucidate the nature of what exactly went wrong or what happened to Dale Earnhardt, then the public is served," Sentinel attorney David Bralow said.

Under Florida law, autopsy reports and photographs are public record unless they are part of an active criminal investigation.

GONNA RACE NO MATTER WHAT: While Benson is looking to come into Las Vegas and make some noise, Brendan Gaughan is just hoping to make it into the race.

The 25-year-old opened defense of his NASCAR Winston West title by breaking his shoulder in a crash in the opener Feb. 4 at Phoenix International Raceway.

His doctor told him it would take six weeks for the injury to heal, but Gaughan has been working overtime with a physical therapist and a trainer. Gaughan, who drives for the Las Vegas-based Orleans race team, said Monday he would race in Wednesday night's Winston West race at the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and would attempt to qualify for his first Winston Cup points race Friday.

ANOTHER ROUSH WIN?: Jack Roush Racing has won the three Winston Cup races held at Las Vegas, and it appears to be one of the strongest teams heading into the weekend.

Jeff Burton won the inaugural Las Vegas race in 1998, then again last season and teammate Mark Martin won in 1999.

"I think Jeff Burton and Mark Martin have been two of the hottest guys there," Rusty Wallace, a non-Roush driver, said. "But I think what you need to look out for there is probably the No. 2 car (Wallace's) being out front all damn day."

FINED (AGAIN): Robbie Loomis and Barry Dodson are 2-for-2 to start the Winston Cup season. But it's not the kind of 2-for-2 for which they were hoping. The crew chiefs were fined after the Dura-Lube 400 at Rockingham for rules violations found during inspection and also were fined at Daytona.

DALE JR.'S WEEK?: With Dale Earnhardt Inc. drivers Michael Waltrip and Steve Park winning the first two races of the season, all eyes will be on Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend to see if he can keep the string alive.

If past results are any indication, he has a decent shot. Last season, Earnhardt Jr. qualified third and finished 10th.

HEADS UP: A Belgian court should decide today whether Formula One driver Michael Schumacher is committing a breach of contract by switching helmets from Bell to Schuberth.

Winston Cup

WHAT: UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400.

WHEN/WHERE/TV: Friday, qualifying (5 p.m., Fox Sports Net); Sunday, race (2 p.m., Fox); Las Vegas.

2000 WINNER: Jeff Burton.

FAST FACTS: Burton outraced brother Ward to the finish line in 1999. It was the first 1-2 finish by brothers since Terry Labonte beat Bobby in 1997 in Talladega, Ala. ... Only the inaugural race in 1998 was won from a top-10 starting position. ... Ricky Rudd started on the pole last season.

POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Rusty Wallace, 311; 2. Sterling Marlin, 298; 3. Michael Waltrip, 291; 4. Bobby Hamilton, 266; 5. Steve Park, 255; 6. Bill Elliott, 254; 7. Jeff Gordon, 253; 8. Ricky Craven, 249; 9. Robert Pressley, 248; 10. Joe Nemechek, 242.

Busch Grand National

WHAT: Sam's Town 300.

WHEN/WHERE/TV: Friday, qualifying (3:15 p.m., Fox Sports Net); Saturday, race (3 p.m., FX); Las Vegas.

2000 WINNER: Jeff Burton.

FAST FACTS: Jeff Gordon, making his first Busch series start since 1992, finished fourth in the 1999 race. ... Jeff Green holds the race record of 114.153 mph in 1997. ... Mark Martin set the qualifying mark last year at 166.328 mph.

POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Kevin Harvick, 340; 2. Green, 312; 3. Kenny Wallace, 302; 4. Jason Keller, 280; 5. Jimmie Johnson, 279; 6. Greg Biffle, 272; 7. Mike McLaughlin, 271; 8. Rich Bickle, 261; 9. Chad Little, 256; 10. Randy Lajoie, 247.

Craftsman Trucks

WHAT: Florida Dodge Dealers 400.

WHEN/WHERE/TV: Saturday, qualifying, 11 a.m.; Sunday, race (noon, ESPN); Homestead.

2000 WINNER: Andy Houston.

FAST FACTS: Rick Crawford won the 1998 race, holding off a late charge from Jack Sprague. Crawford has not won on the circuit since then, a drought of 75 races. ... Before Houston last year, every previous winner also had been a first-time winner on the circuit. ... Jimmy Hensley's streak of 127 consecutive starts ended at Daytona.

POINTS STANDINGS: 1. Joe Ruttman, 185; 2. Ricky Hendrick, 175; 3. Scott Riggs, 170; 4. Lance Norick, 160; 5. Randy Tolsma, 160; 6. Terry Cook, 155; 7. Bryan Reffner, 147; 8. Coy Gibbs, 146; 9. Rick Crawford, 139; 10. Lyndon Amick, 138.

Formula One

WHAT: Australian Grand Prix.

WHEN/WHERE/TV: Friday, qualifying, 11 p.m.; Saturday, race, 10 p.m.; Melbourne.

2000 WINNER: Michael Schumacher.

FAST FACTS: This is the first race of the season. ... Albert Park was rebuilt for the start of the 1996 season. ... Mika Hakkinen was the first pole-sitter to win in Melbourne. Damon Hill won from the pole in previous Grand Prix host city Adelaide in 1995. ... Eddie Irvine got for his first victory on the Formula One circuit in 1999.

NHRA

UP NEXT: Gatornationals, March 15-18, Gainesville.

POINTS STANDINGS: (Top Fuel) 1. Darrell Russell, 205;2. Doug Kalitta, 170;3. Mike Dunn, 155;4. Larry Dixon, 133;5. Gary Scelzi, 108;6. Tony Schumacher, 107;7. Kenny Bernstein, 106;8. Bobby Baldwin, 102; 9. Doug Herbert, 91;10. David Grubnic, 87.

(Funny Car) 1. Bruce Sarver, 208;2. John Force, 150;3. Ron Capps, 129;4. Tony Pedregon, 126; 5. Chuck Etchells, 126;6. Tommy Johnson Jr., 110;7. Whit Bazemore, 108;8. Gary Densham, 102;9. Frank Pedregon, 90;10. Scotty Cannon, 87.

(Pro Stock) 1. Warren Johnson, 193;2. Kurt Johnson, 171;3. Darrell Alderman, 126;4. Brad Jeter, 124;5. Mike Edwards, 113;6. Bruce Allen, 109;7. Jim Yates, 107;8. Jeg Coughlin, 106;9. Mark Pawuk, 105;10. Ron Krisher, 91.

(Pro Stock Truck) 1. Randy Daniels, 118;2. Greg Stanfield, 93;3. Scott Perin, 76;4. Jeff Gracia, 74;5. Bob Panella Jr., 57;6. Brian Self, 54;7. Todd Patterson, 53;8. Mike Corvo Jr., 51;9. Don Smith, 35;10. Bart Price, 32.

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