Brian Whitesell is a sitting duck, and he knows it.

Whitesell, who replaced Ray Evernham as Jeff Gordon's crew chief last week, knows if the Hendrick Motorsports team continues winning, it will be assumed that Evernham left him a winning combination. And if the team loses, it will be because he couldn't match Evernham's ability.

"I'm not trying to replace Ray Evernham," said Whitesell, who was the hand-picked successor for the man who guided Gordon to three Winston Cup championships in the last four seasons. "I just want to make sure the team performs."

Asked about the perception that he has been set up to fail by Evernham's surprising departure, Whitesell said: "Is it unfair? No. It's my responsibility to get it done.

"We are basically still intact. What Ray has taught us, we are prepared to carry on."

So far, so good. Gordon qualified a solid fifth for today's NAPA AutoCare 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

"That was a good start," said Whitesell, who at 35 is the same age as Evernham was when he came to the Hendrick team. "It's what we wanted to accomplish--a top five. Now we'd like to do the same on Sunday."

Gordon expressed confidence in Whitesell and the rest of the Rainbow Warriors crew.

"This is a great race team with a lot of depth," Gordon said. "I really don't feel like we should skip much of a beat."

Evernham was always the man talking on the radio with Gordon during the race. Now that duty falls to Whitesell, who has monitored those conversations over the years.

"It's going to be different," Gordon said. "We miss him. If I had my choice, I'd love for him to be there. But I support him in wanting to do something else."

Evernham has said he will try to form his own Winston Cup team. Talk in the garage area has him doing that with the support of Chrysler, which is expected to return to Winston Cup racing with Dodge race cars in 2001.

The Pits

Today will be the first test for the new pit road at Martinsville, which will have cars pitting all the way from the middle of turn four through the middle of turn one.

Martinsville officials decided to make the change, eliminating the backstretch pits, in the interest of competition. But the new, narrow road could cause one heck of a traffic jam.

"It's a one-lane pit road now," said Ted Musgrave, who will start second, alongside pole-winner Joe Nemechek, today.

"Now, as long as that pit road is, pit position is very important," Musgrave said. "Joe is on the pole, so he picked the first pit stall. We picked further back in line, where there's an opening in front of us and a straight shot in and out of the pits. That will be an advantage in not getting blocked in.

"I sure wouldn't want to be in that very first pit stall" in turn four, he added. "That's going to hurt whoever that is or anybody in that area."

A Doubly Good Day

As for Nemechek, winning the pole for today's race was just one of two good things to happen to him Friday. It also was officially announced that the 36-year-old driver has signed to drive for Andy Petree Racing the next two seasons.

Nemechek, in the final weeks of driving for Sabco Racing, will replace Ken Schrader on Petree's team next year.

"I'm excited," Nemechek said. "I was confident I'd wind up with a good ride, but this takes a load off my mind, knowing what I'm going to be doing next year."

NASCAR

Winston Cup

Upcoming event: NAPA AutoCare 500, Martinsville, Va., Today

Points Leaders

1. Dale Jarrett 4,142

2. Mark Martin 3,885

3. Bobby Labonte 3,878

4. Tony Stewart 3,858

5. Jeff Burton 3,731

6. Jeff Gordon 3,671

7. Dale Earnhardt 3,557

8. Rusty Wallace 3,235

9. Ward Burton 3,063

10. Terry Labonte 3,053

Money Leaders

1. Jeff Gordon $4,696,051

2. Jeff Burton $4,644,671

3. Dale Jarrett $3,066,304

4. Bobby Labonte $2,698,691

5. Dale Earnhardt $2,262,874

6. Mark Martin $2,228,086

7. Terry Labonte $1,987,616

8. Tony Stewart $1,933,021

9. Mike Skinner $1,799,601

10. Rusty Wallace $1,784,899

-- Through MBNA Gold 400, Sept. 26

Busch Grand National

Upcoming event: All Pro 300, Concord, N.C., Saturday

Points Leaders

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,828

2. Matt Kenseth 3,715

3. Jeff Green 3,614

4. Todd Bodine 3,346

5. Elton Sawyer 3,257

6. Jeff Purvis 3,197

7. Jason Keller 3,110

8. Randy LaJoie 2,972

9. Dave Blaney 2,963

10. Mike McLaughlin 2,829

-- Through MBNA Gold 200, Sept. 25