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It Isn’t an Unqualified Success

Times Staff Writer

If life is change, and we all know it is, NASCAR is living large.

When the new Nextel Cup season began at Daytona, new rules were in effect, involving spoilers, which became smaller, reducing downforce; tires, which became softer, yielding better grip but reduced wear; and gear ratios, which became subject to stricter regulation.

The biggest change, though, involved a longtime NASCAR tradition.

For years and years, drivers would qualify their cars for Sunday’s race on Friday, then practice on Saturday. Crews would set up their cars one way for qualifying, speed being the objective, then use Saturday’s practice sessions to help them reset the car for the long haul, ideally, combining speed and endurance.

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That’s no longer the case at many tracks, including California Speedway. Friday qualifying has been done away with. Cars now are qualified on Saturday, then, in effect, locked up until race time. No work is to be done on them, no changes made. Thus, there is no opportunity to make a poorly qualified car better before the green flag falls.

Racing at Daytona, where carburetor restrictor plates are used to reduce horsepower on the high banks, is considerably different from what goes on at most other tracks, so Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at California Speedway was the first test of the rules under “ordinary” conditions.

So did they make for good racing?

Well, the last few laps were interesting, with winner Greg Biffle and third-place finisher Kurt Busch, Roush Racing teammates, ganging up on second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson in a Hendrick Chevrolet.

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But otherwise? People who criticize racing as “just a bunch of cars going around in circles” would have felt vindicated by Sunday’s race. There was hardly any of the wheel-to-wheel, fender-scraping racing that made NASCAR famous, and successful. Most of the lead changes happened in the pits, not on the track.

And some of the sport’s biggest stars, after qualifying poorly, might as well have spent the day elsewhere.

Former champion Tony Stewart qualified his Chevy 29th, never ran among the leaders and finished a quiet 17th.

Might his race have been different under the old rules? It’s not hard to imagine that his crew would have made significant adjustments after qualifying.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., former Daytona 500 winner and perhaps NASCAR’s most popular driver, qualified 40th, had a terrible, and apparently insoluble, tire problem, never ran among the leaders and finished 32nd, 13 laps behind Biffle. It’s not hard to imagine that his crew would have discovered, and maybe fixed, the tire problem during Saturday’s practice after qualifying, if there had been any.

Jeff Gordon, four-time Cup champion, qualified 28th and spent most of his afternoon catching up to the leaders, which he did just before the engine in his Chevy expired late in the race, leaving him with a 30th-place finish. In his case, it’s hard to imagine his crew doing anything more for him, but you never know.

Were the drivers all right with the changes?

Some comments:

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* Earnhardt, asked whether he’d been able to run side by side comfortably: “No, not with that spoiler. I mean, who could? ... Somebody’s got to wake up here. ... The light bulb’s got to come on.

“I’d like to get an inch [of spoiler] back. Give me an inch more spoiler and give me some more front downforce. Give us all that ... then we’ll have a hell of a race.”

* Biffle: “I still feel the inch of spoiler that was taken off was a pretty significant amount. That was a lot of spoiler. They took a half-inch away last year and then to take a whole inch was a pretty bold change. ... My car was real bad behind other cars. ... [It] would quit turning to the bottom [of the track].

“We spent a lot of time [Saturday] working on race trim because we only had two hours of practice [before qualifying]. Normally, we have that much time to work on race trim, but we had to work on that and qualifying.”

* Busch, the defending series champion: “We just went into race mode as soon as we unloaded. When we were here testing, we played around with a qualifying setup and then tried to untape it and it didn’t work, so we knew right away we had to run the race setup and then just deal with qualifying it [20th]. ... [The new format] dictated what choices we made early on Friday and they all played out throughout the weekend. It’s an interesting format.”

Will it make for better racing as the season wears on and crews and drivers get more familiar with it? That’s the hope.

Here, Sunday, it wasn’t very impressive.


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