By Randy Whitehouse

Staff Writer

Sleeplessness. Loss of appetite. Upset stomach.

Those are the symptoms of a TD Banknorth 250 hopeful battling qualifying heat exhaustion.

Many fans will flock to Sunday’s TD Banknorth 250 to see a dozen 20-lap qualifying races as much as the main race. But for all the thrills qualifying brings to the people in the stands, it brings even more headaches and heartache to the people on the track and in the pits. 

“Qualifying is the biggest part of the whole day,” said OPS veteran Ricky Rolfe of Albany Township. “The race is cake. It’s easy. Maybe not winning it, but racing it, it’s just another race up until the finish. Qualifying is why everybody will lose sleep Saturday night, they won’t eat Sunday morning, and why they’re stomach is turning Sunday afternoon.”

All of the driver angst is appropriate. The 250 includes six qualifying heats, with the top four from each earning a spot in the main event. For any number of reasons, competitors regard qualifying as the the most difficult part of the day.

The degree of difficulty depends largely upon the draw, which determines the
lineup for the six qualifying heats. Draw one of the top four spots and
all a driver needs to do is hold his ground and keep his car in good
shape.

A poor draw presents more options. Some riders starting at the back of
their qualifier will take more chances than they normally would to move
up to one of the top four slots. Some will take less chances and
practice self-preservation to put all of their chips into the
consolation and last chance races, especially if the cars in front of them contain drivers who are just begging to be challenged.

Regardless of the draw, though, the stakes are the same for everyone on the track. Therefore, mistakes in the heats are magnified, and it’s a very thin line between being too cautious and too aggressive.

Every driver has at least one qualifying horror story.

“I took the white flag and the car spun after the white flag,” recalled Glen Luce of Turner, who finished second to Kevin Harvick last year. “My spotter at the time yelled” ‘Caution! Caution! Caution!,’ like, 10 times in my ear, and I lifted and I got passed at the line, so I had to go in the consi.”

“In the consi, the same thing happened, but I didn’t let off,” he added. “I took the chance on jumping the curbing, but I said ‘I’m not lifting.’ I thought I qualified, but they went back to the previous lap, so we had to go in the last chance and thankfully we won that.”

Shawn Martin, also of Turner, recalled thinking he had a qualifying spot sewn up last year while riding fourth in his heat. The cars were in single file on the final lap, and he could see the driver two cars in front of him slowing down. With Travis Adams threatening his transfer spot, Martin moved to the outside ready to pass. Then the low line started moving again, and he lost his spot to Adams.

“Then the rains came, so we had a night to think about it, which wasn’t too good,” said Martin, who qualified from a consi and ended up finishing fourth last
year. “You can try to strategize the races all you want. They never turn out
the way you think they are.”

Drivers understand that their is an element of luck to qualifying, but some of the things that are beyond their control cause more frustration than others. Last year’s rain-soaked weekend had many drivers cursing Mother Nature more than Lady Luck.

“Last year was absolutely terrible,” said Rolfe, who finished 27th. “We were the fastest
car on Saturday by far. Then the rains came and the track changed and
we didn’t dare to make any changes because we were so fast on Saturday.
We thought the track would come to us and it just never came to us, so
we were terrible all day Sunday and Monday.”

Even under normal conditions, drivers have to let the track come to them.

“It’s always real hot in the middle of the day,” said Tim Brackett of Buckfield. “The track’s slick and a ton of rubber has been put down, so you’re slopping around on that. There’s not an awful lot of hero stuff usually in the heat races besides just taking what you can get and getting yourself in position for the consi, if that’s what you have to do.”

Above all else, the drivers say, whether you’re trying to qualify
from the front or the back, against the best or the worst, from a
qualifying heat or a last chance race, “Try not to hurt the car,” Rolfe
said. 


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