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Turn on the lights, the party is just starting

May 1, 2001 10:41 AM

This weekend, NASCAR goes under the lights. The Busch and Winston Cup Series get their first taste of night racing in the Capital of the Confederacy.

The Richmond International Raceway has its special traits such as being a tough ¾-mile short track, but what separates this track from any other is the intensity of the fans. Whether it’s because of the lights, the anticipation of the race, or the high-octane booze, there is no other race that has such a wild excitable crowd. The sponsorship even saw the scene as a marketing tool calling it the "Pontiac Excitement 400".

This is the first in a May stretch of races that will be in the evening. Tempers will be on the track as well. Because average speeds will barely be over a relatively slow 100 mph, drivers are more comfortable with rubbin’ fenders.

Jeff Gordon (4-1) is the driver they love to hate and over the years he’s given them plenty to cheer about, but he’s also sent them home hating him even more after winning, which he’s done twice. He’s been feast or famine there. In 16 career races, he’s finished in the top 5 eight times, the other eight races he’s only finished in the top 10 once. In the race last fall, Gordon, who was in the midst of a poor season, managed to stay close. He didn’t lead a lap until there was only 14 to go and then never looked back.

The DEI team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10-1) and Steve Park (10-1) were outstanding in both races last season. Junior won the first race and Park led much of the fall event until settling for fourth. Their set-up notes from last season will serve them well. At this point last season, Junior went on a tear and became a national phenomenon. He could recapture that and then some with a win.

Virginian Jeff Burton (8-1) is a past winner (’98) at his home track and will definitely have the support of most intoxicated Richmond fans Saturday night. If Burton could get just half that kind of backing from car owner Jack Roush, things may have unfolded better for Burton through the first 10 races. This is Burton’s kind of track.

Tony Stewart (6-1) should be a two-time winner at Richmond during his brief four-race career there. He won as rookie there in ’99.

Dale Jarrett (5-1) is a two time winner at Richmond. In one of the more memorable Richmond races, Jarrett got bumped underneath by Terry Labonte (30-1) with a lap to go and finished second. Jarrett has learned his lesson, "Nice guys finish second at Richmond." In five of the last seven races, Jarrett has finished in the top 5. He is the current points leader and has earned every bit of it because of his calculating skills. Another top 5 at Richmond for Jarrett is almost as sure as a sure thing gets in NASCAR.

Andy Petree has put out his best performance of his career last year as a car owner. He got his first win as an owner at Talladega and has his "Square D" Monte Carlo fifth in points. His driver, Bobby Hamilton (25-1), has always been noted for his short track skills.

A driver that shouldn’t be forgotten when handicapping the race is the track’s active leader in money won and wins, Rusty Wallace (5-1). Wallace has six wins, the last coming in ’97. There is little argument that Wallace is the series best short track driver.

Busch Series

The Friday night Busch Series race under the lights will feature several Cup drivers such as Jeff Burton (7-2), Matt Kenseth (5-1) and Joe Nemechek (5-1). Jeff Green (3-1) showed the NASCAR world last season he could finally win a Busch race when Cup regulars participated. At this juncture last season, Green blazed a trail following that win and won the Busch championship by a record margin. Other than Kevin Harvick (9-2), Green’s competition isn’t as tough as it’s been in the past. Look for Green to turn the trick again.

The Craftsman Truck Series has been off for three weeks, but returns Sunday. Gateway International, near St. Louis, will be their next stop. Jack Sprague (5-1) won this event last season.

Top 5 Prediction Finish
At Richmond
1. No. 20 Tony Stewart   (6-1)

2. No. 24 Jeff Gordon  

(4-1)

3. No. 1 Steve Park  

(10-1)

4. No. 88 Dale Jarrett  

(5-1)

5. No. 2 Rusty Wallace   (5-1)