Drivers' safety takes priority at Daytona

Posted: Thursday, February 14, 2002

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Drivers in today's Gatorade 125 qualifying races are convinced of two things: The races will be safer than a year ago, and they will be far less competitive.

One out of two isn't bad.

By trading the ability to run three-wide and 10-deep for the kind of stability that will string the field all around the 212-mile Daytona International Speed way, NASCAR has brought a greater sense of relief back to the sport. And with it comes the fear of boredom.

A year ago, cars at Daytona and its sister track at Talladega, Ala., were fitted with a blade across the roof and an additional strip atop the rear spoiler to create more downforce and drag. All of a sudden, cars didn't have enough power to break up into smaller packs. With cars racing so close in big groups, small accidents turned into massive pileups.

Fourteen cars wrecked on the backstretch late in the Daytona 500.

And on the final lap, a four-wide battle for third sent Dale Earnhardt into a head-on collision that killed him instantly.

The roof strip and spoiler blade have been removed. Now comes the likelihood of follow-the-leader racing.

''The old rules were like drawing numbers in Keno,'' Tony Stewart said. ''This package is a little more like poker. At least you're not at the mercy of the air.''

Today's races will be another test of the most current rules pack age for restrictor plate races at Daytona. The plates reduce air and gas into the en gine to restrict speeds by nearly 30 mph for safety reasons.

A large portion of the starting lineup for Sunday's Daytona 500 will be determined by the finishing orders of today's qualifiers. Half of the entries for the 500 will race in the first 125-miler at 1 p.m. (TNT), while the other half will race in another qualifier minutes later.

The top 14 finishers of each race, less the front row qualifiers of Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, will advance to the Daytona 500. Six other spots will go to the highest qualifying speeds still not in the main event, while the final seven positions will go to provisional exemptions based on last season's point standings.

The first race will be led by Johnson, who won the pole for the 500 with a speed of 185.831 mph.

The second race will have Harvick on the pole. He was the second-fastest qualifier for the 500 at 185.770.

The races come four days after NASCAR changed the rules for the Ford Tauruses. After watching them struggle with only two qualifiers in the top 20 and more trouble during last week's Budweiser Shootout all-star race, NASCAR allowed the Fords to trim an eighth-of-an-inch off its rear spoiler. That's supposed to reduce the amount of drag as well as help provide the front wheels with additional traction.

Chevrolet, Pontiac and Dodge as expected aren't happy with the changes, but they also aren't convinced the Fords will dominate the qualifying races or the 500.

''I don't think it's changed much,'' Gordon said of the balance of power. ''I don't even think you'll be able to see a difference there. You might see a little bit of speed that helps them, and that's fine.''

At the same time, Gordon is part of the overwhelming majority that is glad to see the other changes that are supposed to bring sanity back to the sport.

''Sure it's exciting for the fans,'' he said. ''And if they were going to have last year's package again, that's the only way I could enjoy it: as a fan.''

Reach Don Coble at

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