DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Just about everything in NASCAR is changing this season. Then, there's Daytona.
Except for maybe a few more cell phone ads plastered around the speedway, the Great American Race will be virtually unchanged. Same rules, same cars, same familiar faces.
Thank heaven for the Daytona 500.
''One thing that isn't different this year is if you win Daytona, it's still going to be a big deal,'' defending champion Michael Waltrip said. ''Other than that, it seems like just about everything is different.''
Waltrip, winner of two of the last three Daytona 500s, and his DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. are expected to again be a dominate force at Daytona, one of two tracks where horsepower-sapping carburetor restrictor plates are used to keep speeds under 200 mph.
The Feb. 15 race will be the first-ever Nextel Cup event. The communications giant replaced R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Winston brand, which had a 33-year run as title sponsor for NASCAR's top series.
But once the 500 is over, there are going to be big changes on the racetrack.
Starting with the Feb. 22 race at Rockingham, the Cup cars will be using softer tires and shorter rear spoilers in combination with somewhat altered body shapes.
The tires supplied by Goodyear the past couple of seasons were hard to wear down and teams often changed only two tires on stops or simply stayed out on old tires and stretched fuel mileage to gain an advantage.
By making the tires softer and cutting rear downforce, drivers will have more speed on the straightaways but less speed and grip in the corners. Thus, they'll have to find a delicate balance.
All the changes to the car are intended to make it easier for the cars to race side by side and pass, another attempt to make the racing more exciting.
''It's a continuation of the program we started last year,'' Nextel Cup director John Darby said. ''We're trying to get our arms around downforce and aerodynamics.
''We're going to do it in small incremental steps so that the changes for the driver and the teams is also incremental and it doesn't upset what we do on Sundays. We're optimistic the changes will lead to better competition.''
The drivers say the changes will be most apparent at the 1 1/2- and 2-mile ovals like Las Vegas, Texas, Michigan, California and Charlotte. That's why more than 50 Nextel Cup and Busch Series cars showed up for the preseason test in late January at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
''We started to get a little feel for the changes, but you really won't know a lot about race strategy and how the car is going to be in traffic until we get back out to Vegas in March for the race,'' explained reigning Cup champion Matt Kenseth.
''Daytona is Daytona and the tires have always gone away at Rockingham and it's not an aerodynamics track,'' Kenseth added. ''But, once we get to Vegas, everything could change.''
The biggest change on tap for 2004, though, is the way the Cup championship will be determined.
Last year, Kenseth dominated the points with consistency and became the first champion since 1973 to take the Cup title with only one victory. Ryan Newman won a series-high eight races, failed to finish seven events and wound up sixth in the standings.
That was just the latest in a number of lackluster championships in recent years and it prompted NASCAR to finally make radical changes to its scoring system during the offseason.
First, race winners will earn an additional five points, beginning at Daytona. Then there will be what NASCAR has dubbed: ''The Chase for the Championship.''
After the first 26 races of the season, the top 10 drivers and, any other competitors within 400 points of the lead, will be separated from the rest of the field with additional points and will have a 10-race showdown for the championship.
No matter what the lead is after 26 races, the front-runner will start the last 10 races with 5,050 points, second place will get 5,045 and so on, with five-point increments to the last of the title contenders.
''NASCAR wants to take some of the focus off football and the World Series in the fall and this could certainly help,'' four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. ''It's going to be very different and it could certainly make races 24, 25 and 26 pretty interesting.''
Gordon, who took himself out of the championship battle last year with a midseason stretch in which he finished 28th or worse five times in six races, goes into 2004 as one of the favorites, along with Hendrick Motorsports teammate and 2003 Cup runner-up Jimmie Johnson, Newman, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt Jr.
Kenseth and Roush Racing teammate Kurt Busch could move up to favorite status if the first new cylinder head approved by NASCAR for Ford and a new engine-building alliance between Roush and Robert Yates Racing works out as hoped.
There is also expected to be one of the best rookie of the year competitions ever with 20-year-old phenom Brian Vickers last year's Busch Series champion and the youngest full-time competitor in Cup history battling Brendan Gaughan, Scott Riggs, Scott Wimmer, Johnny Sauter and Kasey Kahne.
''Those kids are good,'' Riggs, who is 33, said about the younger rookies. ''But that would make beating them all the sweeter.''
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