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Top stories for 2003 already in the works

Posted: Thursday, January 02, 2003

ATLANTA -- Official testing for the 2003 racing season starts Tuesday at the Daytona International Speedway. In a 10-day stretch, every team that's expected to compete on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series is expected to shake down new cars in preparation for the season-opening Daytona 500.

While the sport prepares to get up to speed, the storylines that should make the new season compelling have been in high gear for months.

Rusty Wallace going winless and Jamie McMurray winning in just his second career start taught us that nothing is for certain. But it's a pretty safe bet these stories will get plenty of play during the season:

AERO-PUSH: All right, it's not a new issue, but it's one that won't go away. Cars have been over-engineered to the point where they can't race against each other. The lead car enjoys the benefits of air providing down force on the front wheels. The following traffic, however, loses traction. The result: there were no last-lap passes for a win in 2003. An inordinate amount of race-winning passes were made at pit road speed during the final stop of the race.

The problem may force drivers and crew chiefs to storm the NASCAR compound and demand changes. If all three work on the problem, it has a chance to be fixed and the competitive nature of the sport will be restored. If not, aero-push will be a hot topic in 2004 as well.

DEFECTIONS: After winning two of the last three NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships, including the 2002 title with driver Tony Stewart, car owner Joe Gibbs decided to dump Pontiac for the new Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

Not only will Stewart and teammate Bobby Labonte have new cars, but so will Mike Skinner (Chevrolet to Pontiac), Ricky Craven (Ford to Pontiac) and the Penske Racing tandem of Wallace and Ryan Newman (Ford to Dodge).

The Wallace-Newman defection is the most-curious since they're leaving an established manufacturer that boosts the most horsepower for a Dodge program that's admittedly struggling to find power.

Newman said he's noticed the difference in engines during early testing, but he remains confident Roger Penske's resources will help them close the gap before they get too far behind.

ROOKIES: When the rookies of the year were drivers like Ronnie Thomas, Jody Ridley and Skip Manning, nobody seemed to care much about the award. First-year drives like Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Newman changed all that.

The newest crop of rookies includes a driver who's already won a Winston Cup race. McMurray won at the Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte in October while driving in relief of Sterling Marlin. Since McMurray has seven or fewer starts in 2002, he will keep his rookie status in 2003.

Other drivers hoping to make significant first impressions are Casey Mears, nephew of racing legend Rick Mears, and Larry Foyt, son of another legend, A.J. Foyt. Both will move up from the NASCAR Busch Series.

The rookie of the year, however, will be Greg Biffle, the defending Busch Series champion.

DIVERSITY: Now that Martha Burk and the National Football League have put diversity initiatives back in vogue, NASCAR will go through the motions to open the doors for minorities. There will be a lot of talk, but very little action, especially since it takes about $10 million a year to keep a team on the circuit.

The truth is that NASCAR is prejudged only to the color green the color of money.

RICKY RUDD: When Elliott Sadler and Ricky Rudd swapped rides Sadler to Robert Yates Racing and Rudd to the Wood Brothers many figured Sadler got the best of the deal.

Rudd's experience and increased funding by Motor craft will create a resurgence of the once-formidable racing operation. Meanwhile, the Sadler-Yates experiment may take a while to get on track.

THE LAW: As the suit demanding a second racing date at the Texas Motor Speedway as well as the threat to challenge the working relationship between NASCAR and the International Speedway Corp. moves closer to court in 2004, the sanctioning body will start to consider settling out of court.

A second date at Texas is a lot cheaper than explaining to a jury the same family that operates NASCAR and awards racing dates also owns most of the raceways on the circuit.

CONTENDERS: Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch are the frontrunners for the 2003 Winston Cup championship.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip and Joe Nemechek will have career seasons as they become more attuned to the nuances of racing for a championship, not just race victories.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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