NASCAR Is New, but Improved?

Times Staff Writer

The first race, or first game, of any season is a time for questions to be pondered. Or at least asked.

The questions are even more significant this year for NASCAR as it opens the first of its Nextel Cup seasons today with the 46th running of the Daytona 500, the Great American Race. On hand will be President Bush and 180,000 other racing fans at Daytona International Speedway, with another estimated 40 million worldwide watching on television.

This is not just the first race of 2004, it is the first race of a new era in stock car racing.

After more than 30 years with Winston as title sponsor for motor racing's most successful series, NASCAR is introducing Nextel, the wireless communications giant, in that role.

Signs proclaiming "New Cup. New Color. Same Race" have been posted all over Daytona Beach and surrounding communities.

It is a new Cup, and it has a new color with Nextel's yellow and black painted over Winston's red and white. But is it the Same Race?

The Great American Race, the Indianapolis 500 of stock car racing, has been relegated to being no more than the first of 26 qualifying races to determine the Nextel Cup champion. The field of driver-team combinations eligible for the championship will be winnowed down to 10 after the Sept. 11 race at Richmond, Va., and that select group will battle over the final 10 races of the schedule for the champion's bonus of more than $5 million.

Response to the change, the first to the points system since 1975, has been generally negative from fans and drivers alike.

"It's a win-win situation," said Brian France, NASCAR chief executive, in an interview in NASCAR offices here. "Under the old format [in which every race counted the same], after the Coca-Cola 600 [in late May] there were usually only five or six contenders for the championship.

"Now there will be at least 10 guaranteed to be in the running, and maybe four or five others close to making the final 10. It will make a much more interesting season for the fans, the media and the drivers."

When 43 drivers, in their multicolored machines that more resemble 190-mph billboards than passenger cars, take the green flag today at 10:30 a.m. PST, the racing questions will begin to be answered. Such as:

* Will this season's Ford domination, thanks in part to an alliance between former bitter rival engine builders Jack Roush and Robert Yates, continue in the 500 and beyond?

Greg Biffle won the pole, Dale Jarrett the Budweiser Shootout, Elliott Sadler the fastest of the Twin 125 qualifying races, and Carl Edwards the Craftsman Truck race -- all in Fords. Biffle also won the Pepsi 400 here last summer.

Biffle had a setback Saturday, however, when a valve defect and a leading carburetor caused crew chief Doug Richert to change engines. This means that Biffle will lead the pack for the parade laps, but before the green flag lap, he must drop to the rear of the field.

"It was fortunate that the rain didn't come sooner, because if we had not found the problem during practice, we probably would not have finished the 500," Richert said.

Three other cars, driven by Ryan Newman, Ricky Craven and Derrike Cope, will also be sent to the rear because of engine changes.

* Can the Dale Earnhardt Inc. pair of Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. continue their dominance of restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega? They have won nine of the 12 races at those tracks since 2001, and Waltrip has won two of the last three at Daytona.

Earnhardt also will move up into Biffle's position for the start of the race, essentially making his the pole car.

But there seems to be dissension creeping into the DEI team that Teresa Earnhardt took over after her husband was killed in the 2001 race here.

Ty Norris, their team manager and one of the most respected executives in the sport, was dropped shortly before this season began. More recently, Waltrip and Tony Eury, Dale Jr.'s crew chief, have been waging a war of words.

After Eury questioned Waltrip's loyalty to the team following the Twin 125s, last year's 500 winner snapped back in a Speed Channel interview that "it really bothered me that he would question about what I know best for DEI after my assistance, my participation and my great finishes for our team."

Waltrip and Earnhardt said there had been no controversy between them.

"I love Dale Jr., we are buddies and we'll get our jobs done [today], no matter what anyone says or thinks," said Waltrip. Then he added, "If Tony had kept his dumb comments to himself, then we wouldn't even be discussing this."

* Can Matt Kenseth, the defending Cup champion, maintain the consistency that won him the 2003 crown despite winning only one race?

The quiet champion from Cambridge, Wis., drives one of Roush's potent Fords, so he figures to be in the hunt for every race. But on a roster with Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Kurt Busch and Biffle, he was the slowest in qualifying.

* Can Newman, winner of eight races and 11 poles last year, gain enough consistency to be a championship contender?

Like Biffle's Army National Guard team, Newman's Penske Racing crew had to change engines in his Dodge and Newman too will drop to the rear. A disappointed Newman said: "The new motor probably won't be as good as the one we replaced, but hopefully it will finish.

"It could be a handling race. It could be a fuel mileage race. It could be the fastest car wins. Hopefully, we've got a little bit of all three."

* Is four-time Cup champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon in a slump or just experiencing unusually bad luck? He qualified poorly and then had his car damaged in the Twin 125; the result is that he is in today's race with a provisional spot reserved for former champions who failed to qualify.

"I've never had to start this far back [39th] at Daytona, but I definitely know it doesn't matter where you start here. It can be done. I look forward to making it happen. Don't count us out yet."

The 500 has never been won by a car starting that far back. The farthest back a winner started was 38th by Bill Elliott in 1988.

However, although Gordon will officially remain 39th, he will move up three positions because of all the engine changes. Cope's move back won't affect him, because the 1990 Daytona 500 winner was in the 42nd spot.

* What will happen to Joe Gibbs Racing, a family team that has lost its leader to the Washington Redskins? J.D., Joe's eldest son, is at the helm of a team that has produced two of the last three Cup champions, Bobby Labonte in 2000 and Tony Stewart in 2002?

"I would not have gone back to the Redskins if I didn't feel confident in our management team and in J.D. heading everything up," said the elder Gibbs, who is here for the race. "Jimmy Makar has moved up to oversee all of our racing and we have two veteran drivers. I feel like all our bases are covered."

* What are the chances of a multi-car accident, the "big one" that is always in every driver's mind at a restrictor plate race?

"Fifty-fifty," said Waltrip. "We've seen some crazy crashes and wild races here and we've seen ones that have been relatively calm, comparatively speaking. It all comes down to the competitors and what choices they make throughout the 500 miles."

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