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Lester wants to hit higher gear


BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Last time out in the Nextel Cup series, Bill Lester drove cautiously, just trying to learn and earn respect.

This time, in today's 3M Performance 400, he plans to go racing - aggressively.

At Atlanta in March, Lester became the first black driver to qualify for a Cup-level NASCAR race in 20 years. But in that race, Lester said Friday after qualifying 34th for his second Cup event of this season, "My objective in Atlanta was to earn the respect of my competitors.

"Most of these guys had never raced against me," he said of NASCAR's best drivers, even though he's a veteran of the third-tier Craftsman Truck series. "I just wanted them to have confidence that I wasn't going to do anything stupid out there. I wanted them to know I respected them, and I was hoping they would respect me."

Toward that end, "I did a whole lot more giving than taking," Lester said, and the result was a 38th-place finish, six laps behind winner Kasey Kahne.

Kahne won the pole Friday at Michigan International Speedway in a Dodge, at 185.644 mph, followed by Jeff Gordon in a Chevrolet at 185.543.

Lester, 45, qualified at 180.845 mph in his Dodge, but qualifying setups are radically different from race trim. Today, Lester wants to finish on the lead lap.

"This time our objective is to race the whole distance, go all 400 miles - and we want to be on the lead lap," Lester said.

"And this time, to try to finish on the lead lap, I'm going to have to be a lot more aggressive," he said. "I hope we're going to have the car that will allow us to do that.

"I think now that a lot of these Nextel Cup drivers have seen me, they realize I'm not a hazard," Lester continued. "I know what's going on around me; I know how to handle my car; I have car control.

"I'm hoping I can put my nose in positions, and take some of those spots, that in Atlanta I was too cautious to take."

Lester has shied away from a pioneering role but, he said, "I continue to be overwhelmed by the amount of attention I'm getting. Still, I'm just humbled by the fact that so many people have taken notice of what I'm doing."

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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