Sunday, February 22, 2004

Rockingham field filled with slow competition

By Jenna Fryer
The Associated Press

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - It was an opportunity too good to pass up, even for Joe Ruttman, a grandfather of six who hadn't raced in NASCAR's top series in almost 10 years.

A short entry list for the Subway 400 at North Carolina Speedway opened the gates for a bevy of "field-fillers" to load up a race car and try to get into Sunday's event.

It was almost that easy: Ruttman, Kirk Shelmerdine, Carl Long and Andy Hillenburg all made the race despite being much slower than pole-sitter Ryan Newman and the rest of the field.

Newman earned the top starting spot by running a lap of 156.475 mph around the 1.017-mile oval. Hillenburg claimed the 43rd and final starting spot with a lap at 146.859.

The massive speed discrepancies have the top drivers concerned about running side-by-side with clearly underqualified competition who could be lapped early in the race.

"You want the highest quality of teams and drivers that you can possibly have to make it competitive, and so that you can run a nice, smooth race," said four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.

"The most important thing is, if there are teams out there that aren't up to speed, that they're smart about it and use their heads. As long as they're not in the way, or not doing anything crazy or dumb, then they have every right to be out there."

As sponsor dollars are dwindling, leaving just 37 full-time teams and 43 spots in the weekly field, the appeal of a competing for a portion of a $4.7 million purse was just too inviting for the field-fillers.

So Ruttman, a 60-year-old grandfather who made his debut in NASCAR's top series in 1963, will be starting his first event since 1995. He'll start 40th, and skipped both practices on Saturday - perhaps to avoid having to purchase expensive tires.

Shelmerdine, who won four titles as crew chief for the late Dale Earnhardt, made the race with a crew of just four mechanics and starts 41st. He has made just two Nextel Cup starts since 1994.

Long, who made two starts two years ago, starts 42nd.

Hillenburg, who failed to make the Daytona 500 last week, brings up the rear and ran a total of six laps in Saturday's two practice sessions. His best effort was over 14 mph off the top speed of 150.574 mph set by Rusty Wallace.

Once the race begins, drivers must maintain a minimum speed to be allowed to continue, and NASCAR gives them only one warning.

Although Hillenburg admits the guarantee of a paycheck - last place here a year ago paid almost $45,000 - he wants to finish the race and go on to attempt to make at least 20 events this year.

"I don't want to look like we're trying to capitalize on anything, but this is our window of opportunity," he said. "We're not here to go two laps and try to get a check. We're here to do the best we can."

But Shelmerdine doesn't share the same outlook. Although he's taking the season one race at a time and hopes to be at the Las Vegas event in two weeks, he has no delusional ideas of winning.

"If we get lapped twice in the first 100 miles, there's probably not much point to finishing the race," Shelmerdine said. "But we're not going to park on the first lap. We didn't come here to park; we came here to do the best we can."

Today's race

What: NASCAR Nextel Cup Subway 400 at Rockingham.

Time: 1 p.m. TV: Ch. 19, 45.

Radio: WCKY-AM (1360).

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