Originally created 02/22/98

Pedal comes off the metal



ROCKINGHAM, N.C. -- A lot of people think that racing at nearly 200 mph on the high banks of Daytona determines who are the best drivers in stock car racing.

Mark Martin says that's easy compared with racing at North Carolina Speedway's 1.017-mile oval, where top speeds reach about 160 mph.

"What's key is that you have to let off the gas here, so if I need to go faster, I can just hold my foot down longer than the other guys," said Martin, who will start sixth in today's 43-car field for the Goodwrench 400.

"You can't do that at Daytona. I'm sick of restrictor plate racing and very excited about racing here where real men go racing. Real men go racing where you have to let off the gas."

For those who might find that confusing, what Martin means is that holding the gas pedal to the floor for 500 miles at Daytona, where carburetor restrictor plates are used to keep the cars under 200 mph, is less stressful than seeing how deep into the corner you can hold down the gas pedal at Rockingham.

He's not alone in that thinking.

Rick Mast, the pole-winner for today's 400-mile race, said, "This is where we start racing. At Daytona, you're there for two weeks, which seems like an eternity. You've got every CEO in America there, media from all over the world.

"Everybody's on you, and when you unload, the first lap you run on that track is about how you're going to run for two weeks, no matter what you do. I've seen good race teams get mostly screwed up for six months by having two bad weeks at Daytona.

"When you leave there and everybody gets to Rockingham, you can see the relief in everybody's faces."

Today's race is the first of 29 this season on tracks where aerodynamics, not restrictor plates, are used by NASCAR to keep the speeds within reason. This will be the debut of NASCAR's Five and Five Rule, which sets spoiler heights and front air dam clearances at 5.0 inches for both Chevrolet Monte Carlos and the new Ford Tauruses.

Pontiac Grand Prix and the few Ford Thunderbirds still in use will have slightly altered clearances designed to give the same effect -- that is to make the cars loose enough in the turns to force the drivers into backing off the gas.

"What's (been) happening with these cars is you've got so much downforce, the tires got so much grip, that any more they're like go-karts," Mast said. "You hold it wide open, you turn the steering wheel, you slam into the banking, you're still wide open, you're out of the gas for half a second and then back into it wide open and you're just hanging on.

"That took so much away from the driver. With the five and five deal, it will be more like a car and less like a go-kart. You get out of the gas a little more, not as quick getting in it, you tighten the steering wheel a little more and you have to work on the chassis.

"You're going to have to drive the cars a little harder, and that's what I hope happens."

It's also being called the Earnhardt Rule, because drivers like Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt, whose skill in a race car is unquestioned, will now have an advantage.

"I don't think there's much question that guys like Earnhardt and (Jeff) Gordon and me are going to like this rule better than some others," said Rusty Wallace, a five-time winner at Rockingham and today's seventh-place starter. "We should have a better idea of how this is going to shake out after Sunday."