Originally created 02/08/02

NASCAR's 2002 goal: get back to business



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - As a new member of the Dodge camp, Jimmy Spencer missed out on the fun last month when Chevrolet and Ford argued about the rulebook for the Daytona 500.

He couldn't join in Ford's well-rehearsed complaint that rules at the Daytona International Speedway were too restrictive for it to be competitive against Chevrolet. He couldn't add criticism to Chevrolet's charge that Ford teams were playing games during six days of testing to snooker NASCAR into a rule change.

"Ford was mad at Chevrolet; Chevrolet was mad at Ford; and Chevrolet and Ford were suspicious of Dodge. It's good to be back to normal," Spencer said.

Anything but normal was the 2001 Winston Cup Series season, a campaign shrouded in tragedy, dominated by safety issues and overshadowed by off-track events.

Drivers, race crews and NASCAR officials share a vision for 2002: This will be the year the sport got back to business.

Spencer, one of NASCAR's longtime instigators, can't wait to do his part. He's tired of talking about death. He's tired of safety investigations. He's weary of a sport that has become homogenized to better appease the more expansive demographics created by a network television contract.

"Controversy between the auto makers is good for the sport," Spencer said. "Controversy between drivers is good for the sport. Beating and banging is good for the sport. We need that kind of controversy again.

"After the last couple of years we've had, it's going to be good to get back to racing."

Safety will remain an issue.

Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper died of neck injuries sustained in crashes in 2000. When Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time Winston Cup Series champion, was killed by similar injuries in a wreck on the final lap of last year's Daytona 500, race teams and fans demanded answers.

Attention shifted away from the track as the sport drew considerable criticism concerning its safety policies. Talk of head and neck restraints, seat belts, crushable bumpers and softer walls was inescapable.

NASCAR financed a six-month investigation that led to the mandatory use of head and neck restraint systems and the formation of a research and development department that will make safety its full-time focus.

No one believes these issues will disappear or be forgotten in 2002; they simply hope these issues will not dominate the sport.

"I hope there are no big stories in 2002," said Kyle Petty, Adam's father. "We need to restore a little bit of calm. We don't need any big stories. We need to get back to the way it was, when the only things people were talking about were the racing and who's mad at who."

Beyond safety, other issues facing NASCAR this year are the consequences of a weakened economy, the emergence of Dodge as a championship-worthy competitor, the never-ending rift between Ford and Chevrolet, the development of the sport's newest generation of drivers, and the possible dominance of Jeff Gordon.

Seven teams will come to the Daytona 500 without a primary sponsor for the season. Without the necessary funding - it costs about $10 million a year to field a race team - the sport faces the possibility of running races without a full 43-car field.

"Am I worried? Yes," car owner Andy Petree said. "We've got a lot of things in the works, but nothing signed. There are a lot of people out there looking for a deal. I believe the economy will turn in six months, so it's going to be interesting to see who can hang on.

"What's scary for me is I've got a team (the No. 33 Chevrolet of Joe Nemechek) that won a race last year. it's tough when it's hard to sell a proven winner."

Dodges are also likely to continue making news this year.

Sterling Marlin was a top-five driver throughout 2001, the debut season of the Dodge Intrepid. Bill Elliott ended a seven-year winless drought in November with a win at Homestead, Fla., in a Dodge. Ward Burton took a Dodge to Victory Lane at the Southern 500.

After NASCAR allowed Dodge teams to make an aerodynamic change to the front bumper, the Intrepid won four of the final 16 races. Before the rule change, Dodge was winless in 20 starts.

In the off-season, Spencer became at teammate to Marlin at Chip Ganassi Racing. Ray Evernham added Jeremy Mayfield to his Dodge stable, and Ultra Motorsports has changed from racing Fords to racing Dodges for the 2002 campaign.

Since teams have had a year to refine the Dodge cars and still benefit from the August rule changes, many throughout the garages of pit road believe the Dodges will be formidable this season and, as a result, a hot topic.

The 2001 stretch drive also established racing's young guns as contenders in 2002.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 27, Tony Stewart, 30, Kevin Harvick, 26, Matt Kenseth, 29, and Kurt Busch, 23, are members of the sport's new generation.

Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Harvick enjoyed top-10 finishes in the point standings. They combined to win seven races. Any one, if not all, of the young guns is capable of winning the title.

"This might be the year youth takes over," said Steve Hmiel, a team manager at Dale Earnhardt, Inc. "I'm not saying the old race car drivers are gone. I've been taught age and treachery is worth more than wisdom and youth, but I see (Earnhardt) Junior running up front each week. I see Matt Kenseth making a comeback and running up front each week. I see Tony Stewart running up front. I see Kevin Harvick running up front, too."

Gordon is expected to again set the standard. He earned more poles (six), victories (six), top-five finishes (18), top-10s (24) and money ($10,879,757) than any other driver. At some point in the next two months, he will pass Dale Earnhardt for the top spot in NASCAR's career earnings list.

"I just hope the big story of 2002 is something other than Jeff Gordon winning all the races and the championship," Michael Waltrip said. "Personally, I hope I'm a story this year."

Waltrip would have been the story at Daytona International Speedway last year if not for Earnhardt's fatal crash. Waltrip won the Daytona 500, his first career victory, and finished second in the Pepsi 400.

The young guns, especially Earnhardt Jr., Harvick and Stewart, have proven to be capable of winning every week. Whether they possess the patience necessary to sustain a championship push remains in question to the veteran drivers. Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. failed to finish four races a year ago, although Stewart finished as the series runner-up to Gordon. Earnhardt Jr. was eighth and Harvick was ninth.

Stewart also had his run-ins with NASCAR. He was fined and threatened with suspension for crashing into Gordon at Bristol, Tenn., and again for refusing to obey the black flag at Daytona.

After that race, Stewart compounded his problems with the sanctioning body by slapping a tape recorder from the hand of a reporter.

"His intensity is his best friend and his enemy at the same time," Gordon said. "I don't think there's anybody out there who is more talented or more capable of winning races and championships. But I definitely see where there are things that get in the way of the focus at times.

"We all have things that we can improve on and things we need to work on. In my first couple of years, staying cool was something I had to work on a lot. I tried to keep my ego and my composure in check because I felt I focused better throughout the whole season."

Harvick had his problems with other drivers. He spun out race leader Robby Gordon, which cost him a chance to win at Sears Point, Calif. Robby Gordon wrecked Jeff Gordon while fighting for the lead at New Hampshire in the season finale. The series champion came away from the race at New Hampshire promising to retaliate in the future.

"If they rub me the wrong way, I'm going to rub them right back," Jeff Gordon said. "It's so competitive out there that you've got to do something to stand up to the guys, to show them you mean business."

Said Harvick, "If you throw stones at me, I'll throw them back. They're not going to change the way we race."

Even before the first competitive lap this season, rough driving has become a likely recurring theme. That's exactly what Spencer wants to hear.

"There's no gentlemen's agreements out there," he said. "I'm here to race you. I'm not here to be a nice guy. If I have enough room, I'm going to race you as hard as I can. And if we rub fenders, that's the way it goes. If I do you wrong, then you can get even the next time. That's the way it's supposed to work. That's what made racing what it was."

And if Jimmy Spencer has his way, it's the way it will be again in 2002.