Thomas Bowles · Monday February 14, 2005
Remember the 2000 Daytona 500? Longtime fans don’t"¦they were too busy sleeping on the couch. Dale Jarrett won the pole and the 500 that year, in a race that featured only 9 lead changes, the least since the modern era began in 1975. The highlight of the race was when Jarrett passed an underdog team in Johnny Benson with a handful of laps remaining, when Benson’s car got in front due to pit strategy on a late caution. Sure, there was side-by-side racing in the middle of the pack, but up front"¦yawn.
But that type of Sunday was exactly what I’m worried about. Saturday’s Bud Shootout wasn’t an awful race, don’t get me wrong"¦but it wasn’t great. There were only 2 on-track passes for the lead, one on the first lap and one where the pack came up on 2-tire sitting duck Ryan Newman. Despite all the passing going on midpack, it never seemed to work its way to the front of the field. In fact, there were extended periods throughout the race where the top 3 or 4 were single-file.
Come to think of it, that was the case at the ARCA race too"¦Bobby Gerhart dominated the race and never saw an on-track threat to the lead despite heavy racing behind him. And if you think I’m being silly, that I’m predicting this will be a subpar 500 before I’ve even seen anything on the track, take a look at these PR comments from some of Cup’s top drivers after the Bud Shootout:
Greg Biffle: “It’s tough to pass the leader here. You’re going to have to make a big run and get two or three guys lined up to try and pass the leader here at this track.”
Kurt Busch: “The cars were a bit loose and we were all sliding for life (in the Shootout).”
Buzz around the garage is that the new restrictor plate rules (the plate is 1/64 of an inch smaller for this year’s 500) have made it slower for you to make a move on the track. In other words, the car doesn’t “suck up” to the car in front of you and give you the momentum you’re used to seeing, which means people can react quicker if you’re trying to make a move. Not only that, but the new rules in place for the 2005 season spoiler-wise make the cars tougher to handle, and tougher to race side-by-side without losing ground quickly to the cars in front of you.
Which, simply put, is probably why we didn’t see any passes for the lead on Sunday. It’s easy to let someone make a move on you when you’re running 10th, and side-by-side racing is the result. But when you’re running in the lead, you want to win, as all drivers do, and you can predict the move drivers are making light-years before they actually begin to pull it off, you pull down to block and well, that’s that.
And that’s why NASCAR needs to go back to the rules package it had in 2000-early 2001, which produced a record 49 lead changes and one of the best 199-lap races at Daytona I’ve seen in my lifetime (Dale Earnhardt’s crash on lap 200 wiped that all out). If you’re unfamiliar with what the rules were, a 15/16th restrictor plate was used, in addition to a roof spoiler, changes that gave more power back to the drivers and resulted in some of the most exciting restrictor plate racing in years. It was with this very package that Dale Earnhardt stormed from 18th to 1st in a handful of laps to win his final Nextel Cup race in October of 2000 at Talladega. In that package, you could suck up so quickly good drivers could actually pull out to PASS, and we actually saw people unable to block up front as we do today.
I used to think it was better that we scrapped those rules in the face of Earnhardt’s death; then, all of a sudden, last year when I started learning more of the technical side of the sport, I learned that the Busch cars were running this very same rules package the Cup cars had from 2000-01. So if another series is running those rules, NASCAR can’t think it’s unsafe. And I think it’s unfair in hindsight now to pin the rules package on Earnhardt’s death; it could have happened with any rules package under the restrictor plate cars, driver safety in the cockpit was more the issue there.
For some reason, the drivers don’t like that old package because it made the races wild and crazy. And I understand and respect the driver’s concerns about safety at both Daytona and Talladega. Certainly, the last thing you want to do is debut a rules package that incites a big wreck. But let’s look at it this way; we haven’t come up with a rules package yet where we prevent the big wreck. There could have been a big wreck on Saturday night. There were big wrecks in the ARCA race. There’ll be big wrecks in the Busch race. So why did we mess with a great package when other series are using it? With this year’s package, the race is almost guaranteed to be decided in the pits instead of on the track. Is that what the drivers and the sport really want? I don’t think so.
The revisions to the rule package made since Earnhardt’s death have been shielded from criticism by a wacky 2002 Daytona in which Ward Burton came up an upset winner when most contenders knocked themselves out, a rain-shortened 2003 race, and a 2004 race that featured just 2 cars contending for the win over the final 100 miles, which would have sent fans up in arms if those two cars weren’t Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But this year, I think we’ve run plum out of mulligans.
I hope I’m proven wrong next Sunday, and we’ll know more on Thursday after the Duels. But based on what I’ve seen so far, I just want the old rules back. And I know I’m not the only one.
Today on the Frontstretch!
Even packing for a trip is different when you’re a NASCAR fan by Cheryl Walker
Making the Grade: Nextel Cup Budweiser Shootout by Dennis Michelsen
Frontstretch 2005 Preview: 7th – Ryan Newman by Jeff Meyer
Frontstretch 2005 Preview: 8th-Kasey Kahne by Amy Henderson
Numbers Game – Bud Shootout by Kim Dehaven
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