Favorite Bill Rodgers, America's most visible and successful road runner, seeks his fourth consecutive victory in Sunday's 10-mile Perrier Cherry Blossom Race against a field of 4,500 other contestants, said to be the strongest and fastest in the nine-year history of the race.

Among the major threats to Rodgers in the 8:30 a.m. race are Olympic steeplechaser Mike Roche of New Jersey, who broke 47 minutes in the New Jersey 10-miler, and George Malley of Glenn Dale, Md., who finished a close second to Roche in that race with a time of 47:03 -- five seconds faster than Rodgers' record-setting time in the 1980 Cherry Blossom Race. Roche's time in the New Jersey race is the fastest this year for 10 miles.

Anne Sullivan, the Brown University student whose winning time of 55:34 set an American women's 10-mile record in the Cherry Blossom a year ago, is not in the race this year. Among the leading female runners are Pia Palladino, the Georgetown University student who finished second last year with a time of 56:03, and Laurie Binder, a 2:35:31 marathon runner from San Diego and the winning woman in San Francisco's Bay to Breakers race in 1979 and 1980.

Starting on Ohio Drive in West Potomac Park just east of the Lincoln Memorial, Sunday's route follows a level course around the Tidal Basin -- replete with cherry trees in full bloom -- to the Jefferson Memorial, then veers to the left into East Potomac Park. Rounding Hains Point, the runners will head back towards the 14th Street Bridge on the channel side of the peninsula, then turn and head back to Hains Point.

For the final leg of the race, runners will face a virtual straightaway along the river side of East Potomac Park, across the inlet bridge near the Jefferson Memorial and then back along Ohio Drive to the starting point.

This is a change from previous years, when the loop around the Tidal Basin came at the end, not the beginning of the race. Race organizers said the change was suggested by U.S. Park Police to minimize traffic disruption.

With the Tidal Basin loop at the beginning of the race, the area from the bridge on the north side of the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial will be closed to traffic for only as long as it takes the runners to clear -- about a half hour. If the loop is at the end of the race, runners are more spread out and take longer to clear the area.

West and East Potomac parks will also be closed to traffic, but there will be access to the golf course.

Race organizers hope the straightaway finish also will improve times. "They won't be running in a circle at the end of the race this year," said one official.

When it was started nine years ago, the Cherry Blossom race drew only 129 finishers, but even at that it was one of the larger races in the country. This year, however, more than 8,000 runners were denied entry because of a lack of space.

Entrants include 9-year-olds as well as such veterans as Victor Grossman, 78, of Silver Spring and Percy Perry, 77, of Jersey City, N.J., who has run in every Cherry Blossom race. Many runners will aim for a variety of age-group records.

Among those running is Mike Sabino of Baltimore, holder of the national age-group men's records for a 10-mile race for ages 36 through 40. Sabino, who usually finishes in the top 100 in the Cherry Blossom, had a time of 52:12 when he was 36. At 40, his time was 52:37.

Sunday's race comes one week before the first District of Columbia marathon.

Among the other leading runners in Sunday's race:

Jack Fultz, formerly of Georgetwon University and winner of the Boston Marathon in 1976.

Steve Floto, third in last year's Cherry Blossom with a time of 47:29.

Greg Fredericks, two-time member of the U.S. Olympic team.

Malcolm East, an English runner who is a former national junior college marathon and cross country champion.

Dan Rincon, winner of the 1977 Cherry Blossom Race and sixth-place finisher last year.

Randy Thomas, a 2:11 marathon runner.

John Gregorek, a U.S. Olympic team member and all-America runner from Georgetown University.

JoAnn Dahlkoetter, winner of the 1980 San Francisco Marathon and third in the Bay to Breakers Race.

Carol Cook, former American record holder at 10 kilometer and half-marathon races.

Shortly after the start of the 10-mile race, there will be a two-mile fun run, open to anyone, with no registration necessary.