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NASCAR jacks up speed

Posted: Sunday, April 07, 2002

FORT WORTH, Texas -- All this talk about record-breaking speeds at Texas Motor Speedway amuses the Winston Cup drivers.

''This is racing,'' Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. ''We're supposed to go fast.''

Still, the repaving of the 1 1/2-mile oval since last year's race has brought a greater sense of uncertainty and danger to the Samsung/Radio Shack 500.

Led by longtime speed demon Bill Elliott, 12 of the 43 drivers in Sunday's lineup were faster than the previous Texas qualifying record. Elliott's 212.809 mph at then-unrestricted Talladega in 1987 remains the fastest qualifying lap.

His 194.224 on Friday was the fastest stock car qualifying speed at any NASCAR track other than Daytona and Talladega -- the two superspeedway ovals where carburetor restrictor plates keep the cars under 200 -- and Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Atlanta, a similar 1 1/2-mile layout owned by the same Speedway Motorsports organization as TMS, also created a speed buzz when Geoffrey Bodine qualified in November 1997 at 197.478.

That, too, followed a track repaving and prompted NASCAR to toy briefly with the idea of using the horsepower-sapping restrictor plates, just as the sanctioning organization did this week.

Time has taken care of the problem, though. Last month, Elliott won the pole at the Atlanta track with a lap of 191.542.

''I think you'll see the same thing happen here,'' Bobby Labonte said. ''Right now, we've got all the grip in the world and the track is just as smooth as it can be. After a couple of winters, we'll see.''

Meanwhile, Sunday's 500-mile race will be run on the new asphalt.

''The speeds are pretty high but until something happens you're not really thinking about it,'' Labonte said. ''It's only a big deal when something goes wrong.''

Ricky Rudd, who will start third on Sunday, echoed Labonte.

''The cars are fun to drive around here,'' he said. ''To me, they're fun because they stick, they drive, you point it and they go in that direction.''

But he's also thankful for the safety precautions on a track like this.

''I'd hate to think I was running around here without a HANS device or seats that are reinforced like they are today,''' Rudd said.

Complicating the situation, rain washed out the 90 minutes of practice Saturday.

''We haven't practiced with other cars around us, so we don't know how that's going to feel,'' Labonte said. ''Trying to go fast by yourself is a little different than being out there with 40 other cars.''

Most drivers agreed that Sunday's race will be the toughest test yet for NASCAR's new cost-cutting one-engine rule. Teams are required to get through practice, qualifying and the race with a single engine.

''With the grip you've got on this track, you'll be going just as fast after 20 laps as you were on the first lap,'' Labonte said. ''That's going to put more stress on the driver, the engine, everything.''

A repaved track like this one means there is usually only one racing groove, limiting passing and side-by-side racing. With more rain forecast and the possibility of a shortened race, that puts a premium on track position.

''I'll be surprised if it's not a single file race on Sunday,'' said Kyle Petty, who will start 14th. ''Next year, it'll be a groove and a half and, by the third year, it'll be a good race track.

''That's nothing against this track. If they pave a track, it's going to go back to a single-groove race track. Until the pavement wears out on the bottom and you've got to move up and find new pavement, that's the way it's going to be.''



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