Originally created 02/09/02

Will best driver win under rules changes?



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When NASCAR changed some of the rules for the Daytona 500, it traded one set of complaints for another.

While a series of aerodynamic gadgets a year ago brought about some of the closest racing in Daytona International Speedway history, drivers felt it was too close.

Now that the roof deflector and an addition to the rear spoiler are gone, the concern now is the 500 will be a follow-the-leader race.

"It's kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul," said driver Tony Stewart of the difference in the restrictor rules package. "To make it where you can pass, it makes you do things to the cars so that you stay really closed up all day. It looks really fun to the fans, but it's really hectic for the drivers and kind of puts us in a bad situation."

The extra wind-deflectors provided so much stability and created so much drag it made it easy for every car to remain in the lead pack since nobody had enough power to break away. Most of last year's Daytona 500 featured three-wide, 12-deep packs of cars.

Races at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway were much the same. The specials rules are used only at Daytona and Talladega, the sport's fastest raceways.

That closeness helped turn a single bump on the backstretch to a 19-car pileup with 27 laps to go. Then on the final lap, a bump sent Dale Earnhardt veering toward the fourth turn wall and to an instant death.

A 16-car melee on the final lap of the EA Sports 500 at Talladega was enough to prompt NASCAR to remove the deflectors. Cars are still under-powered with a restrictor plate that reduces the flow of air and gas into the engine to reduce speeds by 30 mph for safety reasons. But the reduction of the blades on the roof and rear spoiler allows the cars to break up into smaller, more manageable packs.

By making the cars easier to drive, NASCAR hopes the driver will play a greater role in who wins.

"I'm not real sure to be honest," said Stewart. "I'm kind of the wrong guy to ask because for 23 years all I've done is drive the car. I've never really worried about the engineering side of it."

While today's (1 p.m.) pole qualifying session will help determine who's going to be fast for the biggest stock car race of the season, it won't help show if this year's race will lack the kind of passing that made restrictor plate racing so popular.

A year ago, there were 49 lead changes in the Daytona 500.

Rookie Jimmie Johnson posted the fastest speed in two practice sessions Friday at 185.033 mph. He is the newest teammate to series champion Jeff Gordon.

"We needed to hit every practice session as hard as we could because of the situation we're in," said Johnson, driving a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. "Restrictor plate racing is very unique. I wish I could tell you I'm the reason we're the fastest. It's all the guys who work on the car. If I'm still the fastest when we get to Rockingham (N.C.), then I'll take some of the credit."

Ricky Rudd was second-fastest at 184.740 mph in a Ford, followed by Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet in third at 184.506, Ward Burton's Dodge in fourth at 184.098, Jerry Nadeau's Chevrolet in fifth at 184.004, Terry Labonte's Chevrolet in sixth at 184.000, Dale Jarrett's Ford in seventh at 183.835, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet in eighth at 183.397, Johnny Benson's Pontiac in ninth at 183.329 and Michael Waltrip's Chevrolet in 10th at 183.255.

Johnson, Gordon, Labonte and Nadeau are all teammates at Hendrick Motorsports; Jarrett and Rudd are teammates at Robert Yates Racing; Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip are teammates at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"A lot of guys didn't show everything and that's everything we had," Benson said. "Will we be as fast (during pole qualifying)? It depends on what we get away with when we go through the (inspection) room.

"What we're not happy about is we went through all the testing and we knew what we had. Some of the guys (Ford teams) weren't happy and they complained the loudest and got a rule change. Now they're at the top of the speed charts."

Ford teams were allowed to trim a quarter-inch off their rear spoilers after they continually were the slowest in two weeks of preseason testing at Daytona.

No matter what, NASCAR can't seem to find a package that makes everyone happy in the garage area.

"I think NASCAR is trying to do a really good job of making sure that we put on a really good show for the fans, but at the same time, make it so that it is a little less hectic behind the wheel for the drivers.

"I don't think I've ever seen a sanctioning body work harder and I don't think I've ever seen teams and drivers work harder together to try to come up with a formula that is not only safer for us, but at the same time and foremost, is more exciting for the fans."

NOTES: Chase Montgomery won the pole for the Discount Auto Parts 200 for the ARCA Re/Max Series. His lap of 184.543 mph was good enough to put his Pontiac out front for the start of Sunday's race. Billy Venturini qualified second at 184.215 mph, followed by Jacksonville's Keith Segars in third with a Chevrolet at 184.098 ... Larry Caudill will start today's Daytona USA for the NASCAR Goody's Dash Series from the pole. Justin Hobgood is second, followed by Cam Strader in fourth, Scott Weaver in fifth and Steven Christian in sixth. That race, the season highlight for the stock car series for compacts, starts at 4 p.m.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.