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RESTRICTOR PLATES DRAW VARYING RESPONSES

From Dale Earnhardt's vantage point, 37th starting spot, today's New Hampshire 300 "is going to be a mess. I just hope we don't get caught up in somebody else's stuff.

"There's going to be a lot of shuffling around," Earnhardt said of a situation scrambled by the sudden mandate last week of restrictor plates for NHIS.

The way Jeff Burton sees it, from the front row beside pole-sitter Bobby Labonte, "It is what it is. We can (complain) and moan and groan about it, or we can get ready to race."

"It's aggravating, racing with so much less horsepower than you're used to racing with," Earnhardt said Saturday. "We're just sort of shooting in the dark."

The Winston Cup cars will be down from about 800 horsepower to about 500 because of the 1-inch restrictor plates that have thoroughly scrambled styles of racing and schools of thought at 1-mile NHIS, where Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin were killed earlier this year.

NASCAR ordered plates on the cars for today's race (12:30, TNN), this one race only eight days ago, sending teams into a frantic week of preparation. Previously, restrictor plates had been used only at NASCAR's fastest two tracks, Daytona and Talladega, Ala.

Since the plan here was announced, drivers have divided into three groups -- those who think it's not so bad (the Burton school), those who choose to grin and bear it (the Jeff Gordon school), and those who absolutely despise it, period (the Earnhardt-Tony Stewart school).

Burton was the first driver this week to proclaim that the situation was far less outrageous than teams had feared when they first got the order. His team hurried into a midweek test session at the Milwaukee Mile, a similar but not identical track to NHIS, to get an idea how the plates would work.

"We think that's going to pay off for us," he said Saturday after qualifying his Ford Taurus at 127.226 mph, second only to Labonte's pole-winning 127.632 in a Pontiac.

Labonte's team didn't do a midweek test at all. "We didn't have time," he said.

They tested restrictor-plate engines, hurriedly assembled with such a small track in mind, on dynamometers indoors, then came here to begin work on chassis setup to go with the decrease in power.

Sterling Marlin, teammate of Irwin, who was killed during practice here on July 7, qualified third at 127.108 mph in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. His team hadn't bothered with midweek on-track testing either.

Montoya grabs Motorola pole

MADISON, Ill. -- Juan Montoya crept one point closer to the leaders in the CART championship, taking the pole position for today's Motorola 300 (2:30 p.m., ESPN2).

The Colombian got around the 1.27-mile Gateway International Raceway oval at 180.334 mph to grab his series-leading sixth pole of the season.

Even with the point for leading qualifying, Montoya is an outsider in the closest championship race in the history of the Champ car series. The defending series champion is 11th in the standings, trailing leader Gil de Ferran by 48 points with four races, including today's 236-lap event, remaining.

Actually, the driver whose championship hopes were probably helped the most in qualifying was Paul Tracy, who was third behind Montoya and his Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jimmy Vasser.

Among the top seven drivers in the standings, separated by a total of 17 points, Tracy was the only one qualifying among the top six and one of only two in the top 10. Adrian Fernandez was seventh.

De Ferran leads Michael Andretti by six points, with Tracy nine behind the leader.

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