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Like day-after shoppers, money lures NASCAR drivers to track

Posted: Friday, November 23, 2001

LOUDON, N.H. -- At first, racing in the cold on the day after Thanksgiving was the last thing NASCAR's drivers wanted to do. Now that there's big money on the line, no one would dare miss it.

Jeff Gordon wrapped up his fourth Winston Cup title last week, but the points race is still on. Spots 2-10 in the standings are up for grabs depending on the results of Friday's season finale at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Since second place in the standings pays $992,000, compared with $607,000 for third place, there's plenty of motivation for the New Hampshire 300, which was rescheduled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

''Heck, yeah, I want to finish second -- that's a lot of money, as well as a huge accomplishment for this race team,'' said Tony Stewart, who has never finished higher than fourth in the points.

Stewart enters the race in second place with a 26-point advantage over Ricky Rudd. Sterling Marlin is fourth, 42 points behind Stewart. Any of the three could wind up the runner-up to Gordon.

''Second would be real nice, and with it being so close, I'd say I'd be pretty disappointed if I finish fourth or fifth,'' said Marlin, whose best points finish was third in 1995. ''It's not about the money at this point. It's more about the pride of the final results.''

The shuffling can continue in spots 5-10, where only 196 points separate Dale Jarrett (fifth) from Jeff Burton (10th). A maximum of 151 points can be gained in an event, so the movement could be extensive Friday.

The potential has Dale Earnhardt Jr. overlooking expected temperatures in the 40s and the inconvenience of traveling to Loudon on Thanksgiving Day.

''Forget all of the talk about the weather and the schedule -- all we need to do is to look at where we are in the points,'' said Earnhardt Jr., who is in eighth place. ''We can jump two spots to sixth or we can fall to 10th depending on how well we do.''

Because there is no qualifying round -- the field was set in September based on the owner points standings at that time -- all 10 of the top drivers will start in the front and be able to keep a close eye on each other.

''All of the guys we're battling in the points are all starting together, so it's going to be a fight from the first lap to the last,'' Earnhardt said.

It will be no different in the back of the field, where the competition is also fierce for the final spots in the top 25. The driver who takes that final spot gets a $65,000 bonus, compared to no extra money to the driver who finishes in 26th.

Rookie Casey Atwood currently holds that spot with a seven-point edge over Robert Pressley.

There's only one scheduled practice, meaning teams have little time to get their cars right. That's bad news for Marlin, who has never had much success on New Hampshire's 1.058-mile flat oval. His career best finish there was sixth in 1993 and he hasn't cracked the top 15 since 1995.

Marlin was 17th in the summer, so his crew has completely changed the setup on his Dodge Intrepid.

''We'll just roll the dice and hope we hit it right,'' Marlin said. ''There's not much more you can do. There's almost no time to fix mistakes.''

Nor will there be much time for drivers to get a feel for the tires and how they'll react to the cold.

Drivers struggle to get a grip on this track's surface, even in the heat of the summer or early fall when tires quickly heat to their minimum optimal operating temperature of between 200-220 degrees.

''We're just going to have to get heat in the tires by swerving back and forth,'' Bobby Labonte said. ''It's going to be hard to do, but we're going to have to do the best we can to get heat in the tires.''



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