Rarely have the Gatorade Twin 125 qualifying races for the Daytona 500 been as nervously anticipated as the ones scheduled today at Daytona International Raceway.
More than merely the final 40 starting berths in Sunday’s opening event of NASCAR’s Winston Cup season will be at stake when the big stock cars barrel around the high-banked, 2 1/2-mile tri-oval, nose to tail, at 190 mph.
Nose to tail, that is the problem.
There is a great fear among drivers, crew chiefs and the racing public that NASCAR has created such parity that it is becoming almost impossible to pass. Drafting and slingshot passes, the heart and soul of Winston Cup racing, may be a thing of the past.
In last Sunday’s Busch Clash, 12 to 14 cars paraded around single-file in a pair of 10-lap segments with almost no changes among the leaders.
If it happens again today, when the distance is stretched out to 50 laps, it could foreshadow a boring 500 miles on Sunday.
Not surprisingly, the one most incensed is Dale Earnhardt, the master of the draft who has made his fortune charging through the pack.
“It was pitiful no one could pull out and pass anyone,” said the seven-time Winston Cup champion. “It’s not fun, just sitting in line, but there was nothing anyone could do. I was just sitting there sucking mud, more or less.”
Earnhardt paused a moment, then unleashed his strongest shot: “They’ve made it just like Indy car racing, nose to tail.”
The inability to pass is apparently the result of rule changes made during the off-season. The rear spoilers are an inch higher than they were last year, creating more drag; spring setups have been standardized, making cars more equal; a cold-air box, which runs from the cowl opening directly to the carburetor, has been made mandatory; and a new weight rule decrees that any driver less than 200 pounds must add weight to the car to equal 200.
“Pretty soon it’ll be like IROC,” Earnhardt said. “They’ll build the cars and you’ll buy or rent one from them and you’ll put the driver in it and go racing.”
Terry Labonte, defending Winston Cup champion, agrees.
“There’s like an invisible beach ball between you and the car in front of you,” he said. “You pull up there and there’s a cushion of air and you can’t seem to get any closer.”
Not everyone thinks things are as bad as they appeared, however.
“I think all this no-passing thing is malarkey,” said Rusty Wallace, who will start on the outside of the front row in today’s second 125-mile heat.
“The Busch Clash had only 14 cars in it and there wasn’t enough wind being stirred up. In the 125s, they tend to line up and get going. And when you start the 500, you’ve got 42 cars out there stirring up all that air. That’s when the stuff starts happening.”
Rookie Mike Skinner, the surprise Daytona 500 pole-sitter, and journeyman Steve Grissom, the other front-row starter, will both race today, but they are guaranteed their starting positions Sunday. The next 28 starters will be determined by where they finish in the heats, with eight more selected from qualifying times, and an additional four from 1996 car owner points.
* THE LINEUP, C9